Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birders Brave Cold to See Eagles and Owls
January 21, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     First, a reminder to fill your bird feeders. Traveling around the area during the past couple of weeks, I can’t help but notice the number of empty bird feeders in yards. With the cold snaps that we have had, and the small bursts of snow, with more expected this weekend, it really helps the birds to survive with supplemental seed and suet at feeders.

     Last Sunday was one of those few bitter cold days that we have experienced this winter. Temperatures barely made it into the low twenties and the 20-30 mph winds made it feel close to zero. So you can imagine my surprise when my parking lot filled up with cars and more than twenty people arrived to participate in my “Eagles and Owls” bird walk. This wasn’t going to be a “walk” on such a bitter day, but, rather, a “drive” to try to see bald eagles and snowy owls, with minimal exposure to the elements, or so I thought.

     We managed to consolidate down to about eight cars and we headed up river to try to find eagles. This milder than usual winter has not brought down the numbers of eagles from up north that we have had in the past, but there are a few resident birds around. We headed straight for the Chain Bridge and Deer Island where Margo and I scouted earlier in the day.

     As we walked down to the eastern edge of Deer Island, we were sheltered from the wind and the cold didn’t seem so bad. The first few of us immediately saw an adult bald eagle flying toward, and then land on the far side of Eagle Island, unfortunately disappearing out of view. As we scoped through the trees of the island, hoping to catch a glimpse, Margo saw what she believed to be the white head of an eagle. When I looked through her scope, I thought that I was seeing a plastic bag caught on branches and moving in the wind. I was wrong.

     After peering through scopes long enough, and at just the right angle, we finally made out a pair of adult bald eagles. Everyone got some unsatisfying looks at them, with numerous branches in the way. I decided to take the group to the Newburyport Boat Basin and look up river at them. They would be quite distant, but everyone should get full views of them, provided the eagles didn’t fly away in the meantime.

     As we left the chain bridge, I glanced left and realized that I could see more of the eagles from that angle. I stopped the cars, pulled over and pulled out scopes again. Viewing from between the first two houses off the bridge, we got very clear views of a pair of adult bald eagles perched on the southeast corner of the island, staying out of the strong northwest wind. Everyone was very pleased with such good looks!

     We then headed to Plum Island in search of snowy owls, realizing that we would have even more exposure to the wind. I decided to make our first stop at Lot 1 on the refuge, to look at the ocean. Though we were partially sheltered from the wind, the seas were rough, due the wind, and viewing was difficult. We did have close views of black and surf scoters and a few greater scaup. I did see distant loons and grebes, but the crowd quickly lost interest as the cold won out and we retreated to the warmth of our cars.

     We had seen earlier reports of a pair of snowy owls on the osprey platform near the Pines Trail, so we headed directly there. A harrier was cruising the dike when we pulled into the parking lot. No owls on the platform, nor in the marsh beyond the pines, but I did make out what I was sure was a snowy owl sitting on the edge of Cross Farm Hill, about a mile away. I had a hard time convincing everyone, or should I say anyone, so I suggested that we find a closer owl “with eyes that we can see.”

     We decided to go to the dike behind Hellcat, as owls have been reported several times from there. I knew that the northwest winds would be brutal there, and as we headed out toward the tower, the biting wind was hitting our faces as if we were being sand-blasted. I could not see any owls on the dike, but half way out, we flushed four snow buntings feeding along the edge of the path. Everyone got good looks at the buntings through the scope as our eyes filled with tears, and many folks turned back to seek shelter.

     I continued on to check the marsh beyond the dike and the couple of hearty people who joined me were rewarded with fairly close views of a snowy owl hunkered down in the grass at the edge of an inlet. I signaled others who were huddled back by the incline to the dike, and they came to view the bird. The rest of the party that had retreated to cars was also alerted and they, too, braved the elements once more to view the handsome owl.

     As we made our way off island, people said that this experience of seeing the bald eagles and snowy owl would be more memorable due to the harsh elements that we had to endure. Another chuckled about the experience, and thanked me for the “free facelift” that she received heading out into the wind on the dike.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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