Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Now is Time to Look for Owls
March 08, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     Late winter and early spring are a good time to watch for owls as we move into the nesting season. Great horned owls are on nest already. Barred owls and screech owls become more vocal as they are courting. Saw-whet owls will be migrating through soon as well.

     Of course the owl show has been grand all winter long as the snowy owls have been numerous and, for the most part, easy to find. We saw four snowy owls during a short afternoon visit to Plum Island on Saturday and three more at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation. One bird was in the marsh near the entrance to the Reservation, with a throng of onlookers lining the side of the road. This very white bird was on the other side of a creek, prohibiting approach from its stalkers. 

     We proceeded to the boat ramp where we saw that another snowy owl was not so blessed. As we looked back toward the road, we could see two people with cameras walking across the marsh. We figured that there had to be an owl nearby them, but they were at too far of a distance from us to see. So I took out my scope and, sure enough, a young, dark snowy owl was perched on a hummock about 50 yards ahead of a man and woman. 

     As I watched, the woman continued to approach the owl, while the man seemed hesitant to approach. He wandered in another direction as the woman crept nearer and nearer to the owl. It was hard to judge distance at that range, but he woman had to approach the bird within about thirty feet and, predictably, the owl flew off. She was obviously much too close, and there was no need to disturb the bird.

     On our way back though the campground, we stopped to talk to Jeff LaBaron who was leading a Hampshire Bird Club (from western Massachusetts) trip. They had been watching the owl with scopes from the road. He told us that the couple who made the owl fly came out of the marsh near them and the woman claimed that the owl was fine until they, the birders, slammed their doors. Well, she obviously knew that the the club was too far away from the incident, but realized that they had been watching her selfish behavior toward the owl through their scopes. It is sad that people approach wildlife with such disregard.

     Jeff mentioned that the Club was going to linger at Salisbury with the hope of seeing a short-eared owl. I don’t know if they were successful, but short-eared owls have been seen at both Salisbury and Plum Island in recent weeks, usually in the late afternoon.

     That morning we did see a screech owl roosting in a large drain pipe in beautiful downtown Ipswich. This bird was found about ten days prior and had been seen in the same area off and on. We were lucky enough to catch this red morph bird sitting in the end of the pipe with its eyes closed most of the time we were there. The bird was viewable from a safe distance on the sidewalk, and Margo got a nice photo from there which can be seen at:http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/12915968934.

     The next day, we decided to head south to the Westport/South Dartmouth area. Again, we encountered owls. We were driving down a dead end road in South Dartmouth when Margo exclaimed “??Stop, there is an owl there.”? I stopped the car and backed up a bit and there was a barred owl at about eye level among the sticks and branches in a thicket. We were able to position the car in a spot where no few branches blocked our view and Margo was able to take a few photos from the car: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/12915886693.

     Down the road from there, a young, but handsome red-shouldered hawk perched for another photo:http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/12915840723. We also encountered our first killdeer of the season in a field in South Dartmouth: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/12916072714.

     A flock of about two hundred shorebirds were at Gooseberry Neck in Westport. We found sanderlings, dunlin, purple sandpipers and two ruddy turnstones among them. We later found numerous waterfowl in Westport Harbor including red-breasted and hooded mergansers, goldeneye, scaup, bufflehead, a few common loons and several horned grebe. 

     Late in the afternoon we were driving along a road in Westport, headed north toward the highway, when I spotted a large nest in a tree with two “ears” sticking out the top. I stopped the car and turned it around and, sure enough, it was a great horned owl sitting in a nest! The owl was fairly low in the nest, likely sitting on eggs, but we could see its face and ear tufts clearly through binoculars. Margo was able to get a clear shot with her camera from inside the car, though it was near dusk and the light was low. Her photo may be seen at:http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/12915907133.

     So keep an eye for owls in the weeks ahead. You might encounter them anywhere in your travels!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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