Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagles and Owls Highlight Birding Weekend
February 14, 2009
By Steve Grinley

     Last Saturday was sunny and cold, but not the bitter cold that we have experienced so often this winter. It was a good day to scout for bald eagles and snowy owls in anticipation of this week’s Eagle Festival and my “Eagles and Owls” walk scheduled for tomorrow.

     We headed for Plum Island and stopped at Parking Lot 1 for a look out at the ocean. We saw the usual suspects including common and red-throated loons, horned and red-necked grebes, a few white-winged scoters, and rafts of red-breasted mergansers. We saw no alcids, kittiwakes or gannets, as the prevailing southwest winds were blowing seabirds further away from the coast.

     We continued down the island, and before we got to Lot 2, we saw a number of cars stopped by the side of the road with scopes set up, pointed toward the marsh. We stopped and looked with our binoculars to find a rather dark snowy owl perched on the ice next to the river. We took out our scopes and we had excellent views of the owl as he turned his head to gaze back at the onlookers.

     We continued on, but the stiff breeze kept the land birds hunkered down. We encountered a few robins, heard a couple of chickadees, but there were none of the usual sparrows anywhere along the road. We stopped at the Bill Forward Blind south of Hellcat hoping for a few birds in the pines there, but we encountered total silence. We were, therefore, surprised to see a shrike perched along the road across from the south field. We wondered if he had better luck finding small birds – though his motive was more than just observation. Much of their diet is small birds.

     We ended up at the Lot 7 boardwalk platform, overlooking Emerson Rocks, for another look at the ocean. There we found common eider, common goldeneye, white-winged and black scoters, and a few more loons and grebes. As I was scoping the deeper waters toward Cape Ann, I noticed a large white bird flying toward us. It was pure white, no black wing tips like a typical gull. As it came nearer, I noticed a herring gull darting at it and I thought it odd. If it were an Iceland or glaucous gull, why would another gull be harassing it? As it came in closer to the rocks, I finally realized that it was another snowy owl! It flew over Emerson Rocks and continued north along the beach until it was out of sight.

     Having success with owls, we then decided to head up the Merrimack River in search of eagles. We found none around Newburyport Harbor, but a stop at Cashman Park produced one immature bald eagle, flying at a distance and perching at the top of a pine tree across the river. Our next stop at the Boat Basin would yield another immature eagle, this one perched near the end of Carr Island.

     Still wanting to see an adult bald eagle, we continued down to the Chain Bridge where we observed two adult birds sitting together on a bare snag down river. We watched them through the scope, as one bird twice took flight over the river, only to return to its perch next to its mate. Beautiful common mergansers, swimming below, added to the stunning views in the afternoon sunlight.

     We then decided to end our day at Salisbury Beach State Reservation. We encountered some horned larks and Lapland longspurs along the ground, but the reported white-winged crossbills eluded us. On our way out, there was a string of cars along the road and we could see tens of people standing out in the dunes. There at the top of a dune, surrounded by photographers and other observers, was a very white snowy owl. We could see the owl just fine from the road with our binoculars, but the photographers, especially those with the larger lenses, kept creeping closer. Families stopped along the roads and parents dragged their kids through the deep snow for closer looks. It made us wonder why these creatures of the barren tundra deserved such behavior.

     For more civilized, unobtrusive views of eagles, be sure to partake of today’s Merrimack River Eagle Festival. Naturalists will be stationed at venues along the river to help you observe bald eagles from a safe distance through spotting scopes. There are also free programs, including some with live raptors, at Newburyport City Hall, Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, and the Parker River NWR Headquarters.

     You can also join me tomorrow, Sunday, for a free bird walk to observe eagles and owls. We meet at 1pm at the Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift at the Traffic Circle in Newburyport. Families and birders of all skill levels are welcome.

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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