Monday, January 20, 2014

Owl be seeing you in all the old, familiar places...

Our recent report on duck spotting at Barnegat Light indicated that winter birding is not for the faint of heart. Persistent (and well-insulated) explorers should discover, though, that hanging around in the cold and wind (and even snow) can have its reward in the sighting of species that reliably return to certain spots, year after year.

Take, for example, the Short-eared owl. Habitues of open grasslands, some of these moderate sized raptors spend their winters at the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in Sussex County. A viewing deck at the state border with New York provides a good spot to gather with other hearty souls late on a January afternoon, waiting for the sun to drop below the surrounding hills so the show can begin.

My first visit to Wallkill a few years ago set an unrealistic expectation of the relative difficulty of spotting owls. Ivan took me to see the owls just after we'd met, telling me that the odds were good that we'd see at least one in the field, and I came away thinking that either it was pretty easy, or he was some sort of bird conjurer. Basically, we drove up, he set up a viewing scope on the platform, and within 10 minutes, he found the owl in question perched on a slim stump about 50 yards away. He invited me to take a look, and not only was the bird there, but as if on cue, it turned to look directly at me. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought Ivan had stopped by earlier to plant a mechanical decoy in the field.

Most of the time, spotting the birds isn't as easy as that. It takes time, patience and a touch of fortitude.

  • Time and patience: like most members of its taxonomic family, the short-eared owl hunts largely in darkness. The key is to get to the appropriate viewing site just before dusk, wait and hope they decide to show.
  • Fortitude: well, try standing in an open grassland field at dusk in January. It's windy, and you're often left to stand on snow pack whose chill permeates the thickest of boot soles. Before long, no matter how many layers you're already wearing, you start regretting not having the forethought for electric socks and that extra set of thermal underwear.

The Short-eared owl.
This time around, it was plenty cold, but the inevitable wait was tempered by the pre-game show. A sole adult Bald eagle scared up a massive flock of grounded Canada geese in the field across the road, the geese apparently not realizing that the chances of one eagle killing them all was rather remote.

Not long afterward, the show started on our side of the road as a host of Northern harriers glided effortlessly above the tall grass. A little longer yet less bulky than the Short-eared owl, the harrier's face is somewhat disc-shaped like an owl's, though the two aren't related. Among the many brown females we witnessed skimming and diving around the field, a striking "gray ghost" male harrier flew around the territory like a mysterious spectre.

As we stomped our feet to keep warm, local birders told us that during the week, when fewer people are there to observe, up to a dozen Short-eared owls were known to come out to hunt. They had good reason, too: according to management at Wallkill, conditions over the summer resulted in what's described as a bumper crop of rodents, the prey of choice for owls and harriers alike.

The evening we were there, they started a little later than their customary 4:45 flight time. Suddenly, as light was draining from the sky, we noticed other forms among the many harriers patrolling the field. The new visitors had stiffer wingbeats and bulkier wings. It took a few minutes, but I started to be able to differentiate the two types of birds from their flight patterns and relative size. I didn't get a firm count of owls, but it was clear that several had felt comfortable enough to fly within view of us humans. The show was definitely on!

Chilled to the bone and satisfied we'd met our goal for the trip, we started toward the car to warm up, but one owl seemed not quite ready for us to leave. It approached, soaring higher as if to get a view of us from above, and maybe to confirm to us that we had, indeed, seen what we thought we'd seen. Even in the waning light, we could see its distinctive under-wing pattern as it flew directly overhead. With that parting adieu, we left, happy that our frigid vigil had paid off.

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