Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Owls Are Worth the Search
January 21, 2017
By Steve Grinley

     Owls are among my favorite birds. They are for many people, even non-birders. Maybe it is their mysterious nocturnal nature or maybe it is because we just don’t see them that often. So when Tom Wetmore reported hearing three species of owls on Plum Island one morning, it raised my attention. He heard great-horned, saw-whet and long-eared owls, all in relatively close proximity to each other. 

     Of those owls, the long-eared seems the most secretive. I have seen my share of great-horned owls, many in or around nests that are often more visible than that of other owls. I have also seen many saw-whets, perhaps because they often roost low in trees and shrubs. They can be quite tame and not flush when approached by humans or a flock of scolding chickadees. As a result, I am sure that I have probably walked right by even more saw-whets than I’ve seen.

     Long-eared owls are more easily flushed if one is lucky enough to be in same pine grove as one. Many years ago, we sometimes flushed one while searching for crossbills in the “new pines” area of the Parker River Refuge which has now been off limits to visitors for decades. That also was an area where we often found roosting saw-whet owls.

     Long-eared owls also will hug the trunk of a tree, blending in so as to go unnoticed. They often roost in more isolated areas that are less accessible in general, and certainly go under detected as a result. Despite that, a photographer was lucky enough to photograph a long-eared owl near the road on Plum Island a couple of weeks ago.

     Since my sightings of long-eared owls are few and far between, most are very memorable. I shared one such sighting with you a number of years ago that I thought I would share with you again:

     It had been a busy season at the store…but as busy as it had been, I did take off one morning to try to finish some last minute shopping and run some much needed errands that I couldn’t accomplish with such long days at work. After a couple of stops, I needed to do some grocery shopping, so I pulled into the Market Basket lot. Before I could get out of my car, my phone rang.

     It was Margo, who had also taken the day off but chose to use her time by going birding. She had re-found an ash-throated flycatcher in Gloucester, which was originally discovered during the Cape Ann Christmas Count She had been checking her iPhone (she is more connected than I) and had read a post on Massbird. 

     She told me that Jim Fenton, a local photographer, had found a long-eared owl in Salisbury. Long-eared owl had become one of our nemesis birds. We didn’t see one all the previous year and we were less than two weeks away from missing one again that year. Margo was still on Cape Ann and feared that it wouldn’t still be there if she drove to Salisbury. 

     So I had a decision to make: groceries or owl, owl or groceries? As you can guess, it wasn’t much of a choice. I decided to head directly to Salisbury to see if the owl was still there. 

     When I arrived at the Reservation, I drove through the campground area toward the boat ramp area where the bird was last seen. Checking all the pine trees along the way, I got all the way out to the boat ramp and the only people that I encountered were two dog walkers in the campground and a couple of hunters in the boat ramp parking area. No birders or photographers anywhere. 

     I drove back through the campground and ran into Jim McCoy who had also arrived to look for the owl. He showed me a picture on his iPhone that Jim Fenton took of the owl sitting on Butler’s Toothpick at the edge of the river. I decided to head back toward the boat ramp and explore near the Toothpick. After searching the dune area briefly and walking back toward the pines, I got a call from Jim that was immediately dropped. Bad reception! 

     I ran back to the car under the assumption that the owl had been found and, sure enough, Jim was walking down the road toward me. He and Kirk Elwell had found the bird buried in a juniper tree. Kirk had heard some nuthatches carrying on around one spot and he moved in to discover the owl. We could barely see owl in the dense foliage. As we were trying to get better looks, Jim read another post from Jim Fenton that said that he had mis-identified the owl he photographed. It was a great horned owl. 

     We all looked again at the photo on the small phone. It was, indeed, a great horned owl. So what were we looking at in this Juniper tree? We then thought that it had to be the great horned owl that Jim Fenton photographed. I even called Margo and told her not to rush to Salisbury. But as we continued to look, its ears were quite long, though they seemed far apart from the angle I had. We moved further to one side and finally got a front view of his face through an opening in the branches. It was, indeed, a long-eared owl! 

     I set up my scope and digiscoped some photos. Margo arrived eventually and got some better photos. I had called a couple of people and they were on their way. It was a life bird for Kirk and a Christmas present for the rest of us! And it was a delayed visit for me to the grocery store.

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