A visual journal exploring the birds of Inwood and Northern Manhattan

by Teri Tynes – writer, photographer, and illustrator

Birds in Silhouette and the Case of the Barred Owl

As a practice, birding involves the ability to scan the landscape and pick out anomalies in trees, the surface of the river, in the sky, and so forth. The process for trees goes something like this – see a tree, then a branch, and then more trees, a stump, some gnarly branches, twigs, another tree, clumps of dead leaves, a Barred Owl, more tree branches…Oh, wait, that may be a Barred Owl. Let’s go back.

According to social media reports, a Barred Owl had been spotted in Inwood Hill Park this past week. 

After spotting the anomaly it’s common to raise the binoculars or camera only to discover the exciting bird turns out to be a deflated party balloon, a carelessly tossed milk carton, or a Delta flight to Atlanta.

Late one afternoon on an overcast day, I set out for the White Pines where the Barred Owl is most seen.

Focusing on the anomaly in the landscape can be extra tricky when the bird of interest is located in low-light conditions or backlit in silhouette. For identification, it helps to know the shapes of both common and uncommon birds. In winter months when the trees are bare, identifying birds tends to be easier than in summer.

Barred Owls have large rounded heads with no tufts and a swirling pattern of feathers about the face and deep dark eyes. I have seen Barred Owls before in the pines, but I couldn’t find this one.

Nearby, I spotted a familiar silhouette in a deciduous tree. It’s breathtaking to see an owl in the wild. I took pictures.

The silhouette, or filled-in solid shapes, may be one of the most enduring forms of art, from the earliest cave drawings to popular Victorian miniatures to the practice of contemporary artists, notably Kara Walker. Before the invention of photography, the silhouette was an inexpensive way to capture the individuality of a person. The word is commonly used in the world of fashion.

Upon returning home, I adjusted the images for exposure, light, and sharpness.

Bird photographers in the field, on cloudy days or early in the morning, often end up taking silhouettes of birds due to poor lighting or accidents. The images tend to be tossed and not shared, because they do not help with proper identification. 

Some of these images, however, can be haunting, dramatic, and full of mystery. 

Take the case of the Barred Owl, somewhere in or around the White Pines of Inwood Hill Park, in the first week of springtime.

Adding to the mystery, recent social media reports suggest there may be two owls in this area.

A Gallery of Silhouettes

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