Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Successful Eagles and Owls Excursion
February 22, 2020
By Steve Grinley
Twenty-two folks joined me last Sunday for our afternoon “eagles and owls” walk. It was a sunny day in the low 40’s, with not much wind – hence, the big turnout. We usually check for eagles along the Merrimack River first, but a rare white-fronted goose had been seen on Plum Island less than an hour before the trip, so I decided to head directly to the island. Logistically, it was also easier than winding our way through the streets of Newburyport with nine cars!
We found a small group of Canada geese before we got to the refuge gate and it wasn’t long before the rare goose was spotted among them. Since it is smaller than the Canada geese, its orange legs were a key field mark. When it put its head up, we could see its orange bill and, through the scopes, make out some white around the bill. This was a life bird for many of the participants.
Reports of a snowy owl on the refuge motivated us to move along. A northern harrier greeted us just past the refuge gate as it landed on a cedar tree less than 100 feet away. It flew ahead of us, showing off its dihedral flight and white rump.
As we approached parking lot 2, Margo spotted the snowy owl out on the marsh just across the river. We pulled into the lot and took out the scopes. Everyone got excellent views of this large specimen – most likely a female owl. Some took pictures with their cell phones through the scope for a lasting memory.
There was not much passerine activity along the road as we made our way south. Often we have juncos, song and tree sparrows feeding along the edge, but the weekend traffic moved them elsewhere. Lots of black ducks and more Canada geese dotted the marsh most of the way down.
As we got beyond the Pines Trail to the south marsh we spotted a large dark object sitting in the marsh beyond the river. Setting up the scopes, we could see that it was an immature bald eagle feeding on some kind of prey. Through the scopes we could see a smaller second bird just to the right of the eagle. It was another raptor, sitting quite near the eagle and watching it intently.
It’s light head and chest helped identify it as a light morph rough-legged hawk. The rough-legged hawk is one of our largest buteos, but it was dwarfed by the size of the eagle. As we watched, I was surprised to see the eagle stepped aside and the hawk began to feed on the prey. Eventually the young eagle flew off to Grape Island in the background. I had to assume that the rough-legged hawk caught the prey originally, and that the young eagle mooched off the hawk for its meal.
As we watched the two raptors from the road, I kept looking south to Cross Farm Hill. With my binoculars, I could occasionally see two short-eared owls, with their diagnostic moth-like flight, hunting over the grassy hill. It was a long look for most of us. By the time we traveled down the road and reached the other side of the hill, the owls had stopped flying. The daily ritual of photographers had filled Lot 6 and lined a good part of the road in their quest to “get the shot” of these owls. So we continued on to Lot 7 and walked out to the platform to check the ocean.
From the platform everyone got great scope views of common loons, eiders, and golden-eye. The long-tailed ducks and male red-breasted mergansers were particularly stunning. White-winged and surf scoters and three horned grebes were among the other waterfowl.
We made our way back up toward Cross Farm Hill, and could see a group of birders, as well as photographers, all looking in the same direction. I could see that there was a short-eared owl sitting in the marsh. As we were pulling over, a few of our group got to see an American bittern also drop into the marsh. By the time we got our scopes out of the car, the bittern had walked into the phragmites. However, the owl was still sitting in the marsh, its feathers glowing in the late afternoon sun. It eventually flew off toward Great Neck.
We headed back up island and got to see a couple more harriers coming in to roost. The highlight of our return trip was a northern shrike perched in the shrubs east of the road. It was a target bird, and probably a life bird, for many participants. It was the grand finale to a great afternoon of eagles, owls, and other special birds