Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Discovering Owls Can Be Fun
February 16, 2019
By Steve Grinley

     On a cold, breezy day a few weeks ago, Margo and I were exploring the back roads of Gloucester, checking neighborhoods and thickets for songbirds. We were hoping to find an elusive yellow-breasted chat, an uncommon dickcissel, or wintering catbirds or hermit thrushes. As we drove up to one intersection, we could hear, and see, a number of blue jays making a raucous around some spruce trees at the corner.

     I pulled over and we watched the blue jays as they were joined by titmice, chickadees and nuthatches, all complaining about something. That often means that an owl, hawk or other threat is near. We got out of the car and started looking into the thick foliage of the trees. The birds seemed to be concentrating on the center blue spruce, which had particularly dense branches. It was hard to get an angle to try to see in near the trunk, while trying to stay on the road and not trespass onto private property.

     After about fifteen minutes of searching, the birds were dispersing and Margo was getting cold. She retreated to the warmth of the car, but I was convinced that there was an owl, either long-eared or saw-whet, hidden deep in the spruce. We had concentrated our search near the trunk but I decided to also try to see if anything was further out on the dense branches. I too was getting cold and decided to give up the search.

     I still scoured the tree as I made my way back to the car. Then, something caught my eye. It was just a dark shape at first, but lifting my binoculars, I could see brown and white feathers. It was an owl!

     I alerted Margo and she joined me again to try to get a glimpse of the bird. We could finally get an angle where we could see its eyes and face. It was a cute saw-whet owl!

     Margo grabbed her camera and started trying to take pictures, but the auto-focus kept sharpening the surrounding branches and needles and not the bird. Finally she was able to capture the owl as it peaked through a small opening. Finding just the right spot to see enough of the owl was a challenge.

     A number of people walked by, some with a dog, some just out for a morning stroll. Most were curious as to what we were looking at. We tried to show those who were interested the owl, but it was hard getting them to look at the right spot and the right hole in the foliage and the right depth to see the cute object that was well hidden. I finally pulled out my scope and after much trial and error and adjustment, I was able to get the owl into view and in focus.

Saw-whet Owl

     Most everyone who walked by got great looks and seemed genuinely pleased – some even thrilled! The homeowner, whose property the owl chose as its hideaway, came out with his guests and they were fascinated by the bird’s presence. They were even excited to be “hosting” such a unique bird of their property.

     Once everyone had good looks at the bird, we decided to be on our way. We didn’t want to draw too much attention to the roosting bird (unlike the blue jays). We also didn’t post the sighting of the roosting owl so as not to cause unwanted disturbance.

     We did know of a couple of friends that were birding Cape Ann that day and we agreed to meet them and take them to see the owl. Simple directions probably would not have sufficed due to the difficulty of locating the bird, even when you are standing in front of it! We also ensured minimal disturbance using our same car in the neighborhood instead of multiple cars visiting the site.

     Finding owls can be fun. Sharing them can be rewarding. If you want to join me to look for snowy and short-eared owls, as well as some eagles, ducks, and other birds on my Sunday “Eagles & Owls” walk tomorrow, February 17. We will meet at 1pm at the store, Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift at the Route 1 Traffic Circle in Newburyport to car pool. We will spend 3-4 hours visiting sites along the Merrimack River, Plum Island and perhaps Salisbury. If you wish to join us, please dress warm and bring binoculars if you have them. It is free, and beginners are welcome. Hope to see you then!

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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