Monday, February 27, 2017

NY - one or two Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl - Washington County Grasslands WMA, February 21st, 2017

Last week I made the two hour journey west to the Fort Edward Grasslands IBA in extreme eastern New York State. The site had been recommended to me some years ago by a birder that I'd met at Turner's Falls and had always been at the back of my mind for a winter visit. More recently, Laura Gaudette and JoAnne Russo made the journey from Putney, Vermont and spoke so highly of the experience that I could hardly resist the opportunity for a visit before the winter petered out. 

On reaching the area, I found numerous birders cruising the quiet country roads looking for raptors and it wasn't too long before I encountered my first Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers. But having driven for over two hours to get the site I didn't want to stay in the car and decided to stretch my legs by walking down to the public viewing deck in the center of the IBA. Despite the birder traffic along the roads I was genuinely surprised to find myself alone on the deck, perhaps a little unnerving since I could a see a concentration of birder's cars on a nearby street leaving me to wonder if I was in the right place after all!

But, raptors were on view all the time from the deck as Rough-legs, Red-tails and harriers hunted around the area and sparred with each other. As dusk approached, I began to get to concerned that the hoped-for Short-eared Owls had already moved out for the winter. Then thankfully around 17:10hrs, the first owl appeared and, after briefly sparring with two harriers, flew right past the deck at close range. Moments later, another flew past me. I was surprised how vocal they were and watched them chasing over the fields barking and screaching, surprsingly audible at distance. With these two birds still in view, I quickly became aware of more owl vocals behind me and turned around to see a concentration of nine owls in a tight swirl remaniscent of a flock of migrating nighthawks. I could hardly believe it, 11 Short-eared Owls in the air simultaneously! At the same, and seemingly out of nowhere, the fields were suddenly 'cloaked' in quartering in Northern Harriers with at least 12 in view including three gray males. From then on, the owl and harrier activity continued until it was almost too dark see, though the owls remained vocal well into the dusk. On the other hand, the Rough-legs had dispersed early with around a one hour pause between the last Rough-leg sighting and the appearance of the first Short-eared Owl.

All in all, a wonderful experience and special thanks to Laura and JoAnne for encouraging me to give it a go - what an amazing place for raptors!

Short-eared Owls - Washington County Grasslands WMA, February 21st, 2017.
Four of the flock of nine visible from the viewing deck. 

Northern Harrier - Washington County Grasslands WMA, February 21st, 2017.
Minimum of 12 individuals during the afternoon, including three males.

Rough-legged Hawks - Washington County Grasslands WMA, February 21st, 2017.
Minimum of six individuals seen from the viewing deck. 

Short-eared Owls - Washington County Grasslands WMA, February 21st, 2017.

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