Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Eagles and Owls Steal the Show
February 25, 2017
By Steve Grinley
Fourteen people joined me for our “Eagles & Owls” field trip last Sunday. The weather was sunny and cool. Beginners, intermediate and even a world traveling birder showed up for the afternoon excursion. With fewer eagles in the area than in past, colder winters and sparse reports of any snowy owls around, I felt like we had our work cut out for us. I announced up front that we may not see any eagles or owls, but promised other cool birds to look at.
We carpooled and headed to downtown Newburyport for the now famous screech owl, one that made front page news of this newspaper. I thought this would be a good teaching moment on birding etiquette. When we pulled up, I could see the red morph screech owl sitting in its hole about fifteen feet up in the tree. It was plumped up to keep itself warm in the afternoon sun. A small group of onlookers and photographers were observing the owl from about fifteen feet away,
We parked and set up a spotting scope about forty feet from the tree. I zoomed up the scope so that the owl was full frame. Everyone had excellent looks through the scope and some even took photos of the owl with their phone through the scope. I took the opportunity to relay stories I had been told of people behaving badly there, getting within feet of the owl to get photos and one even climbing a ladder to get in the owl’s face. This is a wild bird, easily stressed by such actions. I think the point was made and the lesson learned.
We then headed to Salisbury Beach State Reservation to try to find a snowy owl that Mass Audubon’s Norm Smith had released after capturing it at Logan Airport. No owl, but we did see two red-tailed hawks, a soaring rough-legged hawk, black ducks, gadwall, and nine horned larks at the boat ramp.
On the ocean side, we saw common eiders, white-winged and surf scoters, greater scaup and some razorbills. We walked out the beach to see a harp seal that was resting on the beach. The area around it was roped off to keep dogs and curious people away while it rested on the sand. Us onlookers admired the animal from a safe distance.
On the way off the reservation a mockingbird and a few juncos and tree sparrows were feeding along the roadside. As we proceeded to Plum Island, an adult bald eagle was flying over the harbor heading upriver. Unfortunately our car was the only one to see the eagle.
Once on the Refuge, we heard that a barred owl was seen at the Hellcat Trail so we headed that way. Near the North Pool Overlook we saw a rough-legged hawk, this time closer and hovering for all to see its wing pattern and hunting behavior. A male harrier also sailed low over the nearby marsh to give all a good comparison of two raptors that display a white patch at the base of the tail.
At Hellcat, we proceeded down the boardwalk and found the barred owl perched close by for great view by all. Part of the group returned to the dike and they were eventually treated to a short-eared owl hunting with the nearby harriers. I stayed to be sure some late arrivals saw the owl, which had moved further down the boardwalk.
As we were watching the owl, I heard a song from the nearby marsh loop. It sounded somewhat like a mockingbird, even a bit like a catbird, but different. Yet it was familiar, and I was thinking shrike. I walked out the loop trail and saw a northern shrike singing at the top of a tree. I called to the others that were with me and they got to enjoy the rare occurrence of a singing shrike.
I texted others in the group who were still near the dike and a few came to see the shrike. It eventually dropped down out of sight.
Those of us who remained went to the dike to try to see the short-eared owl. There was no owl by the time we got there, but I spotted an adult bald eagle feeding on the pole next to the osprey platform. Suddenly a second eagle was flying up Bill Forward Pool toward us. The adult eagle passed almost overhead, giving all that remained on the dike close-up views of our national symbol! A fitting end to a trip that found three bald eagles and three owl species!
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