Owls in sight
With the Holidays and the Christmas Bird Counts safely in the rear view mirror, it is time to settle in and enjoy (or endure) the winter. For those with even a casual interest in birds, it is an excellent time to watch and learn as avian visitors allow unobstructed and close views. A field guide and a pair of binoculars are all one needs to get started, to learn the birds around one's environs.
One of the most desired birds to see by birders and non-birders alike is the large white owl of the far north - the snowy owl. These impressive birds, unlike most other owls, are spectacular flying birds that can capture all sorts of prey in direct flight. Because they breed on tundra when there are 24 hours of daylight, the element of surprise is not really happening and while breeding only during summers, when lemmings are plentiful, and they can catch almost whatever they want by pursuing it on the wing.
Owl researcher Norm Smith has been studying and banding snowy owls at Logan Airport in Boston for decades. Over this time he has seen some owl hunting behavior that had never before been seen. He has watched one fly over miles in pursuit of a large rough-legged hawk and capture and eat it. Ditto for Canada geese, great blue herons and an astonishing variety of waterfowl, including gulls, that one would never suspect an owl might catch. But their preferred foods are small mammals, mice and rats around the airport, or lemmings in the Arctic.
This brings me to the planned "hunt" for the mystical snowy owl by Danielle Zerbonne, with long lens and camera. Danielle is a member of The Times staff. Spurred on by Julian Robinson's accounts and photos of these special birds, she contacted Paul Schultz of Edgartown, the long-time ranger for the Trustees of the Reservations on Chappaquiddick. Paul has more miles on the beach than many drivers on super highways.
He picked Danielle up on Jan. 19 and they crossed the Dike Bridge and headed for Cape Pogue. After searching for a while they spotted the owl and Danielle managed some good flight shots. This individual owl has many dark feather edges and appears very large. This indicates it is a young bird - the older the bird, the whiter it is - and probably it is experiencing its first winter. Its size indicates it is most likely a female, which average a full third heavier by weight and are slightly larger by wing, tail, and length measurements.
Over-wintering species are especially easy to see in periods of bad weather, snow cover being the best for birders, the worst for birds. They stand out like multicolored ornaments against a fresh snowfall and a dreary landscape. It is bad for the birds because the snow covers their natural food, taking it out of reach, making them dependent on a sometimes unreliable food source, bird feeders.
because the photographer got too close. Click photo for larger version.
If one is going to put out feed, remember that being a part-time or fair-weather feeder is absolutely no good. The birds need it most when one least wants to crawl out of a warm bed and scrape away snow and ice. There is a responsibility to the birds and oneself that must be adhered to or all the feathered visitors to your feeders are needlessly endangered. The worst case is that they find empty feeders and have no energy/fat reserves and they quickly starve in the hardest weather. Surely, this was neither the intent nor the desired result when one started bird feeding.
Unfortunately, birds are even more vulnerable to domestic cats and winged predators while visiting man-made feeders. With little or no snow, the birds are able to stay in dense, sheltering thickets and find food, relatively safe from predators. Birds throng to feeders and berry trees in yards in these conditions and, regardless of weather, will take advantage of available berry sources.
That said, feeders provide much-needed and often unobtainable food for a slew of land birds. Feeders and the food provided allow much greater numbers of birds to winter farther north than would otherwise be possible. The pros certainly outweigh the cons.
Unquestionably because of man's increased bird feeding habits, bird populations are benefiting. There is a net gain for the birds, despite the problems. The problems of predation and starvation occur naturally, but they are not so easily observed away from feeding stations.
Many species' success at slowly expanding their respective ranges northward can be directly tied to the increase in bird feeding. Northern cardinals were scarce to unknown in these parts a few short decades ago and now they are occurring all over, even becoming commonplace as far north as the Maritime Provinces. The expanded range of many species of sparrows, woodpeckers, and other species can be shown to have been aided and abetted by the increase in feeding stations.
Away from home and inland locations, at places like Farm Pond or the Head of the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs, anywhere along the Beach Road in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown or crossing the drawbridge between "The Bluffs" and Vineyard Haven, myriad colorful and boldly patterned waterfowl congregate. At these accessible locations, the close proximity to the water is perfect for viewing. Eye-popping views of buffleheads, hooded mergansers, and many other ducks - and an occasional loon or grebe - are routine.
This winter has been and continues to be excellent for birding. Most exciting is the continued presence of the aforementioned snowy owl and an adult peregrine falcon out on East Beach on Chappaquiddick in Edgartown.
Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!
To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail email@example.com.