Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagles and Owls Delight Birders
January 20, 2018
By Steve Grinley

     Eleven people joined me last Sunday for the January edition of our Newburyport and vicinity “Eagles and Owls” field trip. I told the group that we would focus on bald eagles, snowy owls and, if we were lucky, short-eared or other owls. I further explained that there should also be many ducks and other winter birds to see. I asked the youngest, a lad of about ten named Quinn, what he wanted to see and he said “short-eared owl.” Of course I hadn’t seen a short-eared owl in more than a month, so it would be a challenge.

     Five cars headed out on a partly sunny afternoon, with pleasant temperatures rising to the low twenties and very little wind. Our first stop was Cashman Park along the Merrimack River in downtown Newburyport. A small group of ring-billed gulls greeted us along with a few mallards and Canada geese.

     A little further out in the river were red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead and common goldeneyes. A single common merganser was seen by many on the far bank be fore it flew upriver and out of sight.

     I then got my scope on an adult and an immature bald eagle that were perched together across and a little further up the river on the left side of Ram Island. Everyone got great looks at these majestic birds.

     All scopes were trained on the eagles when another immature bald eagle flew down river toward us. It circled right in front of us, about fifty yards out, and dove down and scooped a fish with its large talons! Young Quinn even got video on his camera of the event. The eagle flew to the other side of the river and several of us watched if land in a tree and proceed to devoir its prey.

     As we continued to watch the eagles and the ducks, we also spotted two red-tailed hawks perched across the river. Crows were cawing behind us, and then we all heard the nasal “uh-oh” of a fish crow! The smaller fish crows have become more common in and around Newburyport and have even nested nearby Cashman Park.

     We continued toward Plum Island and during a brief stop at the boat ramp at Joppa Park on Water Street we found another adult bald eagle some distance away on the ice. Along with a large number of mallard and black ducks we found two gadwall and a half dozen pintails flew in. The latter stayed long enough for all to get good looks at them and then took off again for parts unknown.

     Once on the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island, we stopped at parking lot 1 and could see a gathering of people across at the boat launch. Through our scopes we could see a snowy owl sitting out on the marsh. 

     Not far from the owl was another immature bald eagle that was also sitting in the marsh, apparently feeding on something. A harrier circled the eagle and tried to tempt it away from it s prey but the larger raptor just shooed it away. As we watched the eagle and harrier, a second snowy owl flew in from the south and landed on an osprey platform out on the marsh!

     We continued down the island finding zero birds along the way – not even a sparrow or a robin! At the Hellcat parking lot, we went up on the dike and one participant spotted a snowy owl perched on the north dike! Another person spotted yet another snowy further along the same dike just visible over the phragmites.

     Then some sharp eyes saw a short-eared owl hunting behind us, far down on the south dike. We attempted to get everyone a closer view following its moth-like flight in the available scopes. 

     Since the short-eared owl was Quinn’s request at the beginning of the trip, I lowered my scope down to his level and made several tries of passing off the scope to him to look through at the owl. Then, Quinn was finally able to see it. “I can even see its face!” he exclaimed. Mission accomplished!

     After another participant keenly spotted a rough-legged hawk perched a couple of miles away on the osprey platform at Cross Farm Hill, we packed up and head back off the island. Leaving the refuge, the wires were lined with starlings, rock pigeons and mourning doves. Turning down the causeway and over the bridge we came upon yet another snowy owl perched atop the chimney of the pink house on the Plum Island Turnpike! The bird seemed to glow in the late afternoon sun, and provided an appropriate finale to a great afternoon of eagles and owls!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 23 years of service to the birding community!
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