Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagles and Owls Highlight Birding Trip
January 16, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     Our “Eagles & Owls” walk last Sunday lived up to its billing. Sixteen hearty souls joined me for a 1:00 pm start on a sunny, cold, but not very windy afternoon. I wasn’t optimistic in finding bald eagles and snowy owls. Some morning scouting turned up only one eagle along the Merrimack River and there were no reports of snowy owls being seen on the Refuge that morning.

     We decided to head up river and we went to the Newburyport Boat Basin (formerly Ferry Landing Marine) and we peered up and down the river. There were a couple of red-tailed hawks perched on the Salisbury side of the river and we watched a northern harrier glide over the phragmites on the far shore. A few common goldeneyes rode the river’s current.

     We were about to give up on eagles and head toward the Chain Bridge when I spotted an adult bald eagle through my scope. The eagle was perched on Eagle Island and it was hardly visible through binoculars, but everyone saw the bird well through the scopes. As we were watching that bird, another adult bald eagle suddenly appeared to be heading down river right toward us. It continued to fly right to where we were standing, circled right in front of us, and casually made its way back up the river. Needless to say everyone had spectacular views of this majestic bird, to the point where some participants questioned whether or not the eagle was on my payroll!

     With such success, we then headed to Plum Island with hopes of finding a snowy owl. With all the snow and ice chunks in the marsh, we knew that it would be a challenge. However, en route I received a call from Mr. Plum Island, Tom Wetmore, who told me that he had just found a snowy owl just north of the Warden’s on the refuge. We went directly there, not that there were any birds along the way to slow us down.

     We arrived at the Warden’s and I set up my scope. With Tom’s excellent directions, I was able to pick out the snowy owl sitting on a chunk of ice – looking much like just another chunk of ice. Although it was on the Plum Island side of the river, it was still a good distance away. Again, it was difficult, if not impossible, to find the bird on the frozen landscape with just a pair of binoculars. Everyone got to see the owl through the scopes, though he was looking away from us most of the time.

     As everyone was taking their turn at the scopes, I received another phone call from Phil Brown of Essex. He had just flushed a long-eared owl from a path in Salisbury. The owl was perched about fifteen feet off the ground and he had it in his scope.

     We decided to change our plans of going further down the refuge in search of rough-legged hawks and northern shrikes, and we headed directly to Salisbury. When we arrived, everyone took looks through Phil’s scope of the long-eared owl roosting in the sunlight. What a gorgeous bird! We set up other scopes as everyone couldn’t get enough of this bird. We are lucky to see one long-eared owl a year and this was such a treat! 

     After everyone was satisfied with their looks at the owl, we drove around the Reservation. There was a flock of about 30 snow buntings feeding in the campground. They would nervously take flight and the white flash of their wings give them the appearance of a small snow flurry. We ended the trip at the jetty parking lot, where someone was feeding the gulls. Among the gulls was a first winter glaucous gull –larger than the herring gull and all white, no black wingtips. As we drove in and spotted the glaucous gull, the person feeding them stopped and the gulls dispersed. Thus, not everyone saw the glaucous gull. Still, everyone went home satisfied with some great looks at eagles and owls!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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