What's the old saying about weather in New England? .... if you don't like it wait a few minutes. Well, you can add birding to that, too. Okay, make it a few days instead of minutes. After struggling to find much to see and photograph a week ago, this week the feathers were flying and the pixels burning. It started unwittingly last Monday, at Hammonasset, scrounging a few pictures of the usual winter denizens, small flocks of Horned Larks scattered around feeding in the grass and gravel lots, joined by five or six Lapland Longspurs.
I was about to give up for the day when I saw that Keith Mueller reported a Greater White-fronted Goose in Durham. I decided to take a look since it was nearby and I haven't seen one this year. When I arrived there were about 100 Canada Geese tightly packed in the back end of the pond. Scanning the flock, I saw a few female Common Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks and Mallards, but no GWFG. I kept looking for 45 minutes as the Canadas slowly broke their tight formation and drifted towards the center of the pond, and a few made their way to the near edge of the pond. There were plenty of smaller Canada Geese of different races to look through, although none appeared to be Cackling Geese. Finally, I spotted a tiny goose in the center of the pond with its back to me. When it turned around, there was the GWFG. Eventually it joined the Canada Geese at the near end of the pond, then waddled out right in front of me and started feeding in the grass field.
As I was heading home I saw a Barred Owl perched low in a tree at the edge of the road in Old Lyme. It was mid-afternoon and it appeared to be hunting. I was able to take a bunch of pictures from my car window without it flying off.
Since I was on a roll, I stopped at the Great Island boat launch to look for owls. I try to check there at sunset for Short-eared Owls flying over the island, but have not seen any there in a few years. With the influx of Snowy Owls to the region the possibility was there for one of those, too, but the only thing I saw was a Northern Harrier.
On Tuesday I had to pick my daughter up from school in Boston. Hoping to avoid potential traffic, we decided she would take the commuter train to Attleboro, MA so I decided to check a few spots in Rhode Island on the way there. My first stop was the Charlestown Breechway, where the first thing I saw when got out of the car was a Snowy Owl on the dune across the channel.
I told a Rhode Island birder about it and asked about the protocol for posting owl locations in the state, because Rhode Island has a private bird list that I'm not a member of. He said that the policy is not to report owls and asked me not to post the sighting. After quick stops at Trustom Pond and Moonstone Beach I left for Attleboro. We got home after dark to find that we had avoided a 33 mile traffic jam on the Mass Pike leaving Boston and that Hank Golet found a Snowy Owl at Great Island. Later that night I saw that the Charlestown owl was posted on the RI ABA site that is rarely updated. I checked for the Snowy at Great Island in the rain early Wednesday morning but saw nothing.
After a great Thanksgiving, I headed out early Friday morning hoping to avoid anything related to Black Friday. Arriving in Charlestown as the sun rose, there were at least a dozen Common Loons at the mouth of the breechway. There were a few fisherman and their pickup trucks across the channel in the area I saw the owl Tuesday, and an owl was perched on the sand fence father down the beach (at far left, below).
I thought there was another lighter owl farther down the beach, but it was too far to be sure. While I was watching across channel, another darkly barred first year owl flew down the beach from behind me and landed on the rocks fairly close to me.
This owl looked skinny and perched with its wings hanging awkwardly before flying across the channel to join the other owl in the area the fisherman had since departed. Although I never saw all at once, I believe there were three owls on East Beach near the breechway, two darkly barred ones (pictured together) and a lighter one (at right).
Next, I headed to Sachuest Point NWR in Middletown, RI to join a friend who photographed one of the Snowy Owls there. The owl was still sitting on the rocks at the edge of the water and dozens of people at a time stopped to look at it from the trail above.
Nothing draws crowds of spectators, including birders, photographers and casual observers like Snowy Owls, a rock star among birds. This combination of crowds of people with a wide spectrum of experience and interests and spectacular, rare birds is a powder keg that invariably explodes. The owls are here because there is a food shortage in their normal range, and there have already been several venomous exchanges on the Massachusetts and Connecticut bird lists about people harassing them. It's silly to generalize, and blame groups of people for the behavior of a few, but it's also unrealistic to expect no human disturbance to these owls in such a crowded region as southern New England.
While we were watching the Sachuest owl from the trail along with many others, I wondered aloud what the owl might be thinking about the crowd of people who just stared at it, not posing any apparent threat. Many were people just out for a walk with their families, and stopped to see what the attraction was. Some climbed on the rocks nearby, a common activity there, but were eager to steer clear of the owl when alerted by onlookers. But as I was setting up my camera before walking out to the owl, a young man approached and asked if I was going to photograph it. He was excited to show me the picture he got of the flying owl. "Does that mean it flew away?", I asked as he showed off the nearly full frame picture of the owl taking off from the rocks that he shot with his 70-200mm zoom lens. "It came back", he replied, but I'm sure the damage to the reputation of "photographers" was already done.
The situation in Charlestown is even more complex. It is an area that is frequented by fishermen, duck hunters, rabbit hunters, dog walkers and off road enthusiasts. Most of these people are just going about their usual routine, not intending to disturb the owls, but it's unavoidable. Fisherman fished from the breakwater, while the owl tolerated their presence from the rocks on the opposite side. But when a boat went through the channel the owl was flushed from a favored perch.
Later, a jeep made it's way down the two mile stretch of beach, chasing the owls back to the east, directly towards me.
All these pictures were taken from a distance with a long lens, and some are cropped significantly. I got some unexpected chances and took advantage of some unintented disturbance of the owls, hopefully without committing any "fouls". I hope the owls stick around for a while, but they might not if they can't find enough food or are continually harassed. It would be great to get some closer pictures but it might be better to wait until the novelty wears off, and some other rarity like a FORK-TAILED FLYCATCHER (.... next post) shows up and draws the crowds away from the owls.