WORDS ON BIRDS
Eagles and Owls Steal the Show
February 25, 2017
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
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.
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
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