Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Owl Encounters Highlight This Week
October 24, 2009
By Steve Grinley

      I had two encounters with owls this past week. The first one came on a call from friend and fellow birder Phil Brown. He called on Monday afternoon to report a barred owl perched along the Pines Trail on the Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. This was not one of those mega-rare birds that I talked about last week, which tempts me to close the store and run right out to see. Still, I can never see enough owls, so I did rush out right after I closed the store in the hope that the owl would still be there.

      I headed directly to the Pines Trail parking lot. Pulling in right behind me was one of my long-time customers, Lois Douglas. She and her companion had seen a few birds fly into the field from the road and thought that they might be yellowlegs. I scanned the field with them and we found five yellowlegs feeding in the grass. A bit unusual, but maybe they were tired of getting their feet wet with the astronomical high tides that we experienced over the weekend!

     I told Lois about the owl sighting and invited her to join me. Her friend went to the car for a sweater as we headed in along the trail. We took the left fork, stopping in a couple of areas where I was hoping to encounter the owl. Just as I saw her friend coming around the opposite path, I saw the owl fly, and pointed the large raptor out to Lois. The owl flew from the middle pines and headed across the path and then across the road. Unfortunately her friend never saw the bird.

     We went back to the parking lot and I drove up to Lot 5, near where the owl might have landed. Despite much searching, the sun was setting and I was losing light. I was not able to relocate the barred owl.

     My second owl experience occurred Wednesday morning when I decided to get up early and try to catch some early migrants in Salisbury. One of the birds I was hoping to find was a saw-whet owl. Strickland Wheelock had posted his first report about the saw-whet owl banding success that he was having in Upton and at the site at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln. Six to ten bird captures per evening were already happening, so these little owls are migrating. More saw-whets tend to move through inland locations, but we get our share of them along the coast. We even saw a saw-whet nest in Gloucester this summer.

     As I entered the woods that morning, I immediately heard the screaming of blue jays. The scolding by blue jays, chickadees, and other birds is often an indicator that there is a hawk, owl, or other intruder in their area. I headed toward the sound and caught a glimpse of a barred owl in a pine tree. It flew through the trees trying to get away from the annoying jays. I followed it to another area of the woods and this time I was able to relocate it and get some obscured views of it perched. To get a better view, I left the woods and peered in from a distance to get an unobstructed view of the owl perched on a bare branch in the sun. I told the Joppa Flats Wednesday Morning Birding group about the owl and they were able to go there and relocate it It was a life bird for a few of the participants.

     Owls are not the only birds that are moving this time of year. Ducks are migrating and they are arriving on our waters in good numbers. They stay and feed before they move on. A stop at the Cherry Hill Reservoir in West Newbury resulted in my finding a large concentration of ring-necked ducks. I counted 681 ring-necked ducks along with 46 ruddy ducks, one pied-billed grebe, a female bufflehead, a female greater scaup, seven Canada geese, three double-crested cormorants and a belted kingfisher rattling from the distant shore.

     I then went to the Artichoke Reservoir and found fourteen American wigeon, six gadwall, two mute swans and three Canada geese. Waterfowl are gathering on Plum Island as well. I saw a high count of 115 American wigeon and many hundred black ducks, which were easier to count when the high tide water stretched from the refuge road to the mainland, submerging all marsh grass last weekend. Shovelers, hooded mergansers, pintail, gadwall and green-winged teal are all showing up in the fresh water pools. Off the coast, the numbers of common eiders as well as white-winged, black, and surf scoters were also building.

     The passerines (songbirds) are also still moving through, as witnessed by Brooke Stevens of Cambridge:

     “The dreadful weather Sunday … plus a series of fronts over the past few days delivered a cornucopia of birds to our yard – dozens of white-throated sparrows and juncos, both ruby- and golden-crowned kinglets, brown creeper, a scarlet tanager feeding on one of the invasive honeysuckles we leave alone, yellow-rumped and black-throated blue warblers, and this morning a winter wren. There was even a mid-day chorus of white-throats, Carolina wren, scolding ruby-crown, and red-winged blackbird. Sharp-shinned and cooper’s hawks are haunting our white pines and hemlocks, drawn to this inviting buffet; from my window I see explosions of feathers as another mourning dove leaves us.”

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