I’m not a chaser, but a Great Gray Owl? Come on

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Gray Owl perches in a tree overlooking a field in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Gray Owl perches in a tree overlooking a field in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

As the headline says, I don’t typically chase rare birds around the region. It’s not that I don’t want to see the birds, but either family or work obligations usually prohibit me from taking long drives to see a bird.

But a Great Gray Owl within 3 1/2 hours? I gotta make that effort. I still had work but couldn’t risk waiting until the weekend should the bird decide to take off and not be found again. So I pulled a maneuver I used to do fairly often before I had kids: I basically pulled an all-nighter. I slept restlessly from midnight to 2:15 a.m. and drove three hours to Keene, N.H., to pick up my old friend Steve Hooper. Then we drove another 40 minutes to Newport, N.H., where this awesome bird had been seen in the same field each day for about a week straight. (I knew that thanks to the ABA rare bird alert.)

Hoop and I followed the directions and arrived at the scene at about 6:20 a.m. A rare bird alert message posted at 6:15 a.m. confirmed that the bird was indeed there. I was minutes away from seeing my first Great Gray Owl.

We walked a short distance down a trail, saw a handful of people and joined the small crowd. Sure enough, there was the owl, sitting in a bare deciduous tree surveying the field and ignoring his fans.

At one point it flew to another nearby deciduous tree and then eventually flew another short distance to a pine tree. The wind was strong and snow squalls came and went, but otherwise it was a rather pleasant day for the owl and his human visitors — especially for New Hampshire in early March.

I was hoping to see one more flight, but time was short. I had to drop off Hoop and drive the 3 1/2 hours back to Connecticut to get to work in the a.m. So by 10:30 a.m. I had driven to New Hampshire and back, and saw my first-ever Great Gray Owl. Just the old days.

Here are a few photos with more to come in the days ahead. Also coming soon is more information on the Great Gray Owl as a species.

No promises on how long it will stick around, of course, but here’s a link to a news story about the owl with directions on where to find it. 

And here’s the link to the ABA’s Rare Bird Alert with updates on the owl (and other sightings).

 

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Gray Owl perches in a pine tree in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Gray Owl perches in a pine tree in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.


Photo by Chris Bosak
A Great Gray Owl perches in a tree overlooking a field in Newport, N.H., in March 2017.

Latest For the Birds column: Owls of winter

Jeannie Merwin of Marlow got this shot of a Barred Owl in her yard. She said the owl returns to her yard every January.

Jeannie Merwin of Marlow got this shot of a Barred Owl in her yard. She said the owl returns to her yard every January.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers:

I’ve never had great luck finding owls, but I always enjoy hearing when other people do.

Such was the case last week when New Hampshire resident Jeannie Merwin let me know that the Barred Owl that returns to her yard each year on Jan. 1 was a few days late and arrived on Jan. 4. She sent a great photo of the beautiful bird and added another photo of the owl with a Downy Woodpecker and Black-capped Chickadee also in the frame. So much for the big, bad owl.

Imagine having an owl show up at your yard like clockwork each year. I would look forward to it months ahead of time.

Barred Owls are one of New England’s most common owls, along with Great-horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls. In my years of watching birds in this region, I’ve had decent luck finding Barred Owls, poor luck finding Great-horned Owls and almost no luck finding Eastern Screech Owls. Lucky and observant birdwatchers may also find Northern Saw-whet Owls and Barn Owls in New England.

Winter brings sightings of Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owls and Short-eared Owls and the very rare sightings of Great Gray Owls or Northern Hawk Owls. I’ve seen my share Continue reading

Latest For the Birds column: Owls come a’hootin’

Photo by Chris Bosak A young Barred Owl clings to a branch in the woods in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A young Barred Owl clings to a branch in the woods in Danbury, Conn., spring 2016.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers edited by Jerrod Ferrari.

….

Throughout my birding “career,” I haven’t had great luck with owls.

I get the occasional look at a great horned owl and have only slightly better luck with finding barred owls. I’ve had modest success with snowy owls along the Long Island Sound coast in certain winters, especially during that banner year a few winters back. Short-eared owls, long-eared Owls, saw-whet owls, even screech owls? Hardly a glimpse.

But this fall has been pretty good so far in terms of owling. Not that I’ve actually seen owls — even a single one — but I have heard plenty of them. It started about two weeks ago when I heard a barred owl in the woods while I was sitting on my deck at dusk.

Then, a few nights ago, I heard a great horned owl. I knew it was fairly close, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was.

Two nights later, I had a great night of owling, and I didn’t even have to leave my yard. I heard two great horned owls calling to each other, one of which was in my side yard. I didn’t see it, as it was pitch dark, but the sound was definitely coming from close by.

The owls hooted to each other all night. I know it was all night because I was up most of it worrying about my house cat that happened to get out that night. He picked a great night to get out — the night two great horned owls are scanning the neighborhood.

At one point that night, I heard a pair of barred owls in the distance, too. I had never heard any owls from my yard before, and now I was hearing two species in one night.

Barred owls and great horned owls have very different calls. Barred owls belt out a “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you aaallll?” It’s loud and, quite frankly, creepy. It’s a great Halloween sound. Great horned owls are more subtle when they say “Who’s awake? Me too.”

Now back to my cat. Cubby makes a great escape once a week or so and gets out. Like most pets, it’s best not to chase Cubby as he just runs farther away if he feels pursued. Plus, he’s much too agile and fast to catch anyway. Typically, he’s back in a half hour or an hour. At night, his escapes are usually even shorter. But on this night, he didn’t come home right away. I took frequent walks around the yard with a headlamp on to try to find him. No luck. I gave up on that at about 3 a.m.

I couldn’t sleep with my cat roaming the neighborhood and the constant sound of great horned owls calling to each other. I was torn between this being an awesome night or a terrible night. I certainly appreciated the owl calls, but in the back of my mind I worried about Cubby.

I put my mind at ease by knowing that, yes, owls on occasion will take a cat, but it’s highly unlikely. They are looking for mice, chipmunks, rabbits or similarly small prey. A house cat, while certainly within reason for a powerful great horned owl, is not a desirable prey. Cats are larger than an owl’s normal prey, so owls don’t typically go after cats because of the risks involved.

My mind was at ease, but not totally — certainly not enough to fall into a deep sleep. I left the sunroom door open and sliding door to the kitchen open a few inches in the hopes that Cubby would come in. I had to gauge the width of the door opening carefully as raccoons have gotten onto the enclosed sunporch before to get at the bird food. Boy, they are messy.

Finally at 4:30 a.m., I was half asleep when a loud “meow” came from the kitchen. It was Cubby, and he was fine. I had no idea where he had been or if he saw or heard the owls. I was just relieved that he was back.

I closed the doors and finally fell asleep fully with Cubby curled up at the foot of the bed.

The owls kept hooting, and I kept enjoying it, even in my sleep. When I woke up a few hours later, the sun was up and the owls had quieted. I didn’t know if they had left, but I knew they weren’t calling anymore.

I have heard them on occasion since, but not every night. I’m not sure if they are looking for nesting sites or just checking out a new neighborhood for untapped food sources, but I’m glad them came along. They are welcome in my yard anytime. I just have to be more careful with Cubby’s great escapes.