Lucky Pellet?

Posted by Jane N on

After striking out in my attempt to see the Short-eared Owl during my last trip to Plum Island I was considering another try. I had been watching the Plum Island Bird Report website and every day one to two Short-eared Owls were being reported as being seen, all in the same area of the North Pool Overlook and Fields. How was it Beth & I missed them? We were there, but the Owls weren't.

After our shut out on the island Beth came up with a possible answer, one I should have thought of. She suggested that maybe instead of trying to get onto the island early to see the birds, as is our usual routine, that perhaps I should try to arrive later in the day. Most owls hunt only at night but the Arctic owls that Winter on Plum Island hunt both day and night, so you can often see them in the day time. I did some research and yup, the Short-eared Owl hunts early morning just after dawn and late afternoon before sunset. That was all I needed to convince myself it was worth another trip to the island.

So Saturday I made plans to get onto the island by 3pm, park in the North Pool pull off and wait for the owls. My plan was to pack a sandwich for dinner and just sit in the car till the owls arrived or the park ranger kicked me out. The last time we were there we saw other people parked, waiting, and now I knew why they were there. Some of the reported sightings were at 3pm or 4pm.

I packed up the car with all my gear, spotting scope, binoculars, cold weather clothing, blanket, food and water. Just before driving away I walked down the driveway to get the mail. As I was walking I saw an owl pellet on the ground. I gave it a kick and walked past it, then on my way back up the driveway I stopped. I looked at the owl pellet, ummm, maybe it is a good luck sign, I decided to pick it up and bring it into the house. I didn't want to touch in bare handed, it was still fresh and damp so I broke off a pine bough and scooped it up. I headed for the island with hopes of seeing the owls.

Saturday was the Super Bowl of Birding event, this is a competition where birders compete to see who can see the most birds in 24hours. It is a big deal, you win a trophy and it is a fund raising event for Audubon. I considered competing but couldn't pull together a team. So I knew it would be crowded on the island, but I figured it would mean more eyes to point me in the right direction to find the owls. Sure enough, I arrived on the island to a crowd.

As soon as I got onto the island I stopped at the visitors center, cuz those that have been there know it is the last chance for a flush toilet. Off to the edge of the parking lot is a large crowd, with spotting scopes and huge cameras, and people pointing. Of course, I went over to see what was up. As I was walking towards the group a birder came towards me, I asked him “what's been spotted”. He tells me a pair of American Eagles is sitting together on an old piling sitting in the salt marsh. I wave my hand and say “ugh just an Eagle, I'm here to find the Short-eared Owl have you seen one?”

As soon as I say it and look at his face I realize what a snob I sound like. I try to recover, I say “Oh Eagles are very majestic, I am fortunate that I get to see them often up North at my cabin” “Umm have you seen any owls?” He tells me no he has not and wishes me luck as he walks away. I don't even bother to look at the Eagles, I am here for owls, I must stay focused! I drive on.

Along the refuge road I come upon another group of men, same scenario, spotting scopes and binoculars, people pointing. I stopped and ask “what have you spotted?” One young man tells me in an excited voice the “Snowy Owl! Would you like to take a look thru my scope?” I thank him but say no, “I've seen them before, I'm here looking for the Short-eared Owl, have you seen any?” One of the other men tells me “oh yeah, they're here, up at the North Pool Overlook, we just came from there, if you hurry they may still be there.” Wow, I exclaim, I thank them and turn to head back to my car when the younger man again asks if I would like to see the Snowy Owl. He says “ Hey even if you have seen it before when will you ever be able to say you saw two owl species in one day?” I laugh, again I have been a birding snob! I stop and look at the Snowy thru the scope, no matter how many times you see one they are beautiful. I rush along the refuge road to find my Short-eared Owls. Must stay focused!

I am almost there, North Pool Overlook is just around the next corner. I turn the corner and BAM! There are cars at a complete stop, parked on both sides of the narrow refuge road and stopped in the middle of the road. People weaving in and out of the parked cars carrying spotting scopes and cameras. I am still almost a ¼ mile from the pull off for North Pool, this is crazy! The owls must be there! I gotta see them, ahhhh!!!!! I back the car up and do the best I can to park on the side of the road, I put the flashers on and jump out. I weave thru the cars and push my way to the front of the crowd. Hey, I am here to see the Short-eared Owl get out of my way! Obnoxious birder here!

And there they were! Not just one Short-eared Owl but two! A pair, they were gliding over the field in search of food, interacting with each other making circles in the sky. It was magical. I watched as one hovered over the grasses then dropped down. It came back up out of the salt marsh reeds with a vole in its talons. The crowd cheered, “He got one!” they clapped their hands, well a cold weather glove wearing birders clap. I went back to the car and got my spotting scope, I set it up and offered other birders a chance to see the owls up close. I apologized to the couple I pushed out of the way in my rush to see the owls. I let them enjoy the spotting scope to watch the owls hunt.

I stayed there nearly an hour just watching the owls glide low over the field on their large wings. I watched as one caught a vole and then landed and enjoyed his dinner. I was so glad I went back for my spotting scope, it made the experience so much better. I was able to zoom in close and look the owl right in the eyes as it sat on the ground surveying the scene. Had to wonder just what they thought of all of us. But hunting was good for them so I don't think they much cared about all us silly birders.

The park ranger came along on an ATV with a bullhorn asking people to please move their cars. It was understandable, luckily I was able to see the owls before he came along to break up the party. Just before leaving the refuge I stopped to admire the sunset, I wanted to take a few pictures of the sky over the sand dunes as the sun began to set. I was standing there enjoying the view and thinking about what I had just witnessed, how lucky I felt to have seen those two Owls hunting. I was thinking what could possibly top this day of birding.

As I was putting my camera back into my backpack suddenly from behind me just over my head fly’s a Snowy Owl! Unbelievable! It was only feet overhead, it flew over my head and dropped down behind the very sand dunes I was just taking a picture of! Wow! I do indeed think that owl pellet I found brought me luck. When will I ever be able to say I saw two species of owls in one day again? When will I ever be able to say I experienced the behavior of two Arctic owls up close and personal again.

As I drove home I thought the only thing that would have made today any better would have been if my birding buddies had been there to witness what I just had, maybe next time ladies, maybe next time.

Happy Birding, Jane

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