Thursday, January 24, 2013

Palmyra Cove? It's a hoot!

We've already established that it's near impossible to find owls, even when you look really hard. Fog doesn't help much. So, then, why did we head to Palmyra Cove Nature Park on an afternoon when it was shrouded in mist so thick we couldn't see the adjacent Delaware River?

To look for owls, of course. The park is a known wintering site for saw-whet owls, which nestle within the honeysuckle canopies in the wooded areas. Given our lack of success seeing short-eared owls at Manahawkin the evening before, I think Ivan was looking for some redemption.

Palmyra Cove is easy enough to find: it's on Route 73, right at the foot of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge leading to Philadelphia. The Burlington County Bridge Commission has reverted this former dredge-dumping site to a largely natural state, with trails extending through wooded areas, a tidal cove and a couple of small ponds. While some of the foliage consists of invasive species that typically capitalize on disturbed soil, the park attracts a nice variety of bird life, including up to 25 species of warbler during migration.

Our first stop was the visitor center to pick up a trail map and check out the exhibits, which focus on the nearby bridge and community as much as the natural environment. I was rather tickled to see that the display on the town of Palmyra included a photo of local man-who-made-good Lena Blackburn, without explanation of his contributions to baseball (one wonders whether the secret location of his baseball rubbing mud source is somewhere within the Nature Park!). There's also a pair of monitors showing a live feed of the bridge's Falcon Cam: a pair of peregrines has nested on the structure for several years. They were away from the roost while we were in the VC, but visitors are encouraged to log their sightings in a book nearby.

That exploring done, we hit the trails. Given low visibility and our desire to find owls, we chose not to take the riverside Cove Trail, favoring the path system that courses through the woods. After we passed the shallowly-filled dredge retention basin, the trail began to wind and split off at points. It didn't take long until I lost my sense of direction and got all turned around.

"I'd turn back if I were you." Fog in the woods
of Palmyra Cove.
If that wasn't enough to get me disoriented, there was the fog. It wasn't all-enveloping, but it added a certain spookiness to the whole venture. As we both scanned random vine tangles for signs of saw-whets, I couldn't help but think of the haunted forest scene from The Wizard of Oz. You know the one I'm talking about: lions and tigers and bears, oh my! I knew that the worst thing we'd come upon was a deer, but still. It was late afternoon in January, with murky weather and declining daylight.

We wandered for a good half hour, finding very little bird activity, let alone owls. I spotted a flicker high up in a bare tree, but we identified it from shape and behavior because it was little more than a silhouette to us in that light. If there were any saw-whets in the tangles of vines, they weren't letting themselves be seen.

And then... hooo! Ivan found an owl, but it wasn't the species we were looking for. Whatever it was was high up in a distant tree, far higher than a saw-whet would venture. It was something neither of us had expected to see: a great horned owl. A bit of jockeying and guidance got me onto the bird, and I probably wouldn't have noticed it even if I'd been looking that far up the tree. Perched very close to the trunk and further obscured by the fog and waning light, the owl stood motionless. I thought I could make out the pattern of its feathers, but the best identifying points were its size and the ears which stood out from its head.

So, we were zero-for-two on the small and medium-sized owls that weekend, but we scored a big one.

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