Great Gray Owl
Photo by Steve Sanford
This winter saw a mass exodus of BBC birders from the Baltimore area to frightfully cold and snowy northern realms such as Minnesota and Ontario. What would cause such bizarre behavior?
OWLS! Areas along the US/Canadian border from Minnesota to Quebec experienced an unprecedented invasion of coveted northern owls Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls, and Boreal Owls. Minnesota had more than 2000 Great Grays as opposed to typically just a few dozen, and a few hundred Hawk and Boreal Owls. Southeastern Ontario had hundreds of Great Grays, especially near Ottawa, along with Hawk Owls and Boreal Owls. This invasion is believed to be the result of a crash in vole population in the more northerly regions of Canada where these owls, especially the Great Grays, normally reside, even in winter.
The invasion created a counter-invasion of owl-seeking birders from all over the US who might normally be thinking of birding in the tropics at this time of year. And so we present the stories of several BBC members who went in search of owls in the Great White North. We begin with ...
And even if you went, how would you find a Great Gray Owl in all that vast northland? You could pay the tour groups to find your owl: $1450 + your airfare. Ka-ching! Or you can wait for a massive irruption. A local man who has birded Minnesota for thirty-five years said he has never seen anything like this year's supply of owls. Northern Minnesota usually has a few Great Grays; this winter, they had hundreds. Add to that a generous sprinkling of Northern Hawk Owls and a handful of Boreal Owls.
On New Year's Eve, my husband, Dan, and I decided this is the best shot we'll ever have; let's go! That spur-of-the-moment birder, Gail Frantz, was only too willing to jump at the chance to tag along. We visited northeastern Minnesota from Jan 14 through Jan 18 at the deepest point of a deep freeze with morning temperatures of -26 to -40. Only on the day we flew out, did the temperature go above 0 degrees. But we were blessed with clear sunny skies and no wind, unless we were on the shore of Lake Superior itself. While we were there, the city of Duluth closed schools not for snow, but for cold!
The way to bird in Minnesota is with two sets of thermal underwear, top and bottom, jeans, sweater, windbreaker pants, big fat puffy windbreaker coat, two balaclava-type helmets that come up to cover mouth and nose, glove liners and gloves, 2 pair of socks and a pair of boots. And even then, you only take 5-10 minutes shots outside the car before the little that's exposed of your face begins to hurt and the discomfort is added to by your metal spectacle frames. And even if your face wasn't cold, your breath has misted and frozen on your spectacle lenses and you can't see anything anyway! We did a lot of birding from INSIDE the car.
Our first morning at Sax-Zim Bog, we found our first identifiable Great Gray just off the side of the road, perched in plain sight in wonderful light. (As we explored the area the night before, we had a very large bird in flight, but it was too far and too dusky to make a positive ID.) As we continued our search, we found other northern specialties: Northern Hawk Owls, Black-backed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Snow Buntings and Boreal Chickadees.
As we met other birders, we heard reports of Boreal Owl in Two Harbors, MN. We failed to see one in the early morning at one reported site. As the day went on, we learned that there were at least 4 individual Boreals as well as a Northern Saw-whet in the town, and that the birds were moving about. So we decided to cruise the neighborhood until we saw one fly. With daylight rapidly failing, a bird finally moved and dove into a thick spruce. Dan's above average bird-finding came to our aid, locating the owl's perch with just enough light left to let us see it was indeed our Boreal.
By late January I was getting owl fever, but wasn't quite ready to go all the way to super-cold Minnesota. I started looking into the Ontario owl invasion and found that it was full of potential and only a day's drive to some of the owling sites. I got in touch with various people and pretty soon Mark Linardi, Paul Noell, and I were off to Ontario on January 27 to focus on the Kingston area, including Amherst Island, and Ottawa.
On Thursday, after about an 8 1/2 hour drive, we got to the Kingston area early enough to have an hour of daylight to go to a reported nearby Great Gray Owl location. From about 4:30 to 5:15 we saw 15 Great Gray Owls! Most were on fence posts or low trees very close to the road with good light. We also saw several Ruffed Grouse. Naturally we were rather pleased to have accomplished our main goal before the first full day of birding!
Friday morning was payback time because we went to "Owl Woods" on Amherst Island and didn't see a single owl. We did see a flock of Snow Buntings though.
That afternoon we were on the western outskirts of Ottawa and had great looks at 3 Snowy Owls. Two of them were totally white adults, unlike the spotty immatures that we usually see when they come south to our region. Then we tried for Gray Partridge without success in a highly developed area where they were seen several times, including the same day we were there. We saw one more Great Gray Owl and a Barred Owl before running out of daylight.
Saturday morning we tried for Barrow's Goldeneye in Ottawa but the river was almost totally fogged in and it did not look likely to lift soon. Mark's wife said there was going to be a snow event Sunday. We had accomplished many of the big goals, especially the Great Gray Owls, so we headed home around 11 AM after another short stop in an arboretum.
On the way home, in northern New York we decided to pull into a parking area to look around, and, behold, there was a Rough-legged hawk sitting in a tree.
The weather was cold but fine until we got to Maryland in a minor, but spooky, ice/snow storm. The temps ran from about -5 to +15 up north. The snow cover was about 3-4 inches. Mark, drove the whole trip. Thank you, Mark!
When I got home, there was an email from Joel Martin:
"You may have heard that southern Ontario is also experiencing a northern owl invasion. I figure a weekend trip could be done..."
I thought, well, even though the first trip was quite successful on the most important target - Great Gray Owl - we did miss Boreal Owl and Hawk Owl, and a few other things. The long-range forecast for southeastern Ontario looked good. So, what the heck. Pretty soon Joel, Gail Frantz and I were planning a trip for the next weekend.
We drove up to the Kingston area Friday, February 4. Like the previous weekend, we saw many Great Gray Owls (12+) in the late afternoon of our arrival. One actually flew closer and closer to us and ended up right outside the car window allowing for some good pictures. This time I remembered to have my camera by the seat unlike last weekend, and we were a little earlier giving us more daylight. These owls were again on roads around a village called Enterprise northwest of Kingston. We also saw a Northern Shrike there. The temperatures all weekend were balmy with highs in the mid-30's, but fog was a problem some of the time.
Saturday morning we went 1 1/2 hours west to the village of Welcome. It was extremely foggy for several hours but we finally found the reported Hawk Owl. Just like the Great Gray Owl, it actually flew right up to the car. Marvelous! In the afternoon we went to "Owl Woods" on Amherst Island and this time we did see a Boreal Owl thanks to having it pointed out by departing birders, who apparently numbered over 50 that day. The owl was quite close and sleeping deeply. We also saw a Short-eared Owl nearby.
On Sunday morning we had our payback. We went to Ottawa and, due to fog, totally missed the Snowy Owls that we saw last weekend. Then we missed Gray Partridge again, also due to the fog. Eventually the fog lifted, but we still couldn't find any reported Bohemian Waxwings, although we did get see Pine Grosbeaks. Finally, we once again missed the Barrow's Goldeneyes even though there was no fog at the location like the week before. We left Ottawa about 2 PM and got home around midnight. This time we went in Joel's van with Joel doing almost all the driving including lots of contending with fog. Thank you Joel!
I put up some of my modest owl pictures on my website at http://www.santanager.net/OntOwls/OntOwls.html.
And now true madness set in, with a shift away from owls. When I got home from Ontario trip number two, I saw on Birdchat that there was an Ivory Gull in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This was one of the birds of my dreams a symbol of the remotest corners of the Arctic. The bird, an immature, had been seen regularly for about six weeks and was taking hand-outs from observers. This sounded like a slam-dunk! Soon I rustled up Paul Noell for my third consecutive weekend trip to Canada.
We drove all the way to Halifax starting Saturday, Feb 12. It was two long days of driving, including passing through northern Maine which had just had about 20 inches of snow. The roads were fine though. We contacted local birder Blake Maybank Sunday evening. He said that the only new information was that someone had looked twice for the Ivory Gull without success on Saturday while we were on the way up. Uh-oh!
The next day we spent several hours in the harbor where the Ivory Gull hung out. We looked and looked, but didn't find an Ivory Gull. We did see several Black Guillemots. Another target was Dovekie. So we decided to go down the coast to gamble on a random sighting, and at least see some scenic coastline. The coast was scenic, especially Peggy's Cove on a rocky point with a lighthouse. We did see 11 Harlequin ducks fairly close there, but no Dovekies and not much else. We returned in the afternoon to look for the Ivory Gull without success.
The next morning we looked for an hour prior to our trek home. We still didn't see the Ivory Gull. We did see a number of Black-headed Gulls and Iceland Gulls. We also saw a Thick-billed Murre. At the end of that day we spent 3 hours driving back roads in northern Maine looking for alleged "swirling masses" of Bohemian Waxwings, but naturally had no luck with them either.
So, the Nova Scotia trip was generally a big bust, but it was an interesting adventure to a new place, which is one of the reasons I keep birding. And it was a relief that at least there were no more sightings of the Ivory Gull posted on the Nova Scotia birding email list. I found out the distance to Halifax by road is actually a little more than the distance to Duluth, MN!
Bill Hubick and Stan Arnold did a trip to Ontario on the weekend of February 19-20. They did extremely well seeing Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, Boreal Owl, Snowy Owl, Barrow's Goldeneye, Northern Shrike and Bohemian Waxwings. Bill posted some excellent photos of the first three owls on his site at http://www.billhubick.com/birds.html. He has lots of dazzling photos of birds of all kinds there.
By late February Keith Costley could not stay home any longer while the owls were beckoning. Not wanting to desert his family for the weekend, he took them along! On February 26 and 27, Keith, his wife, and young daughter went on a quick trip to Amherst Island, Ontario. They hit gold. They had good looks at a Boreal Owl, a Great Gray Owl, and a Long-eared Owl. All this in the space of a few hours, which was about all they could spare.
There was yet another northern realm beckoning Baltimore Bird Club members: Northern Michigan. Here's a report on an excellent trip there by BBC's Cathy Carroll, now living in Detroit Michigan, but maintaining active connections with Baltimore birders.
If I worried about not seeing owls on my weekend trip to the Soo (the vicinity of Sault Ste.-Marie, Michigan, that is), February 3-6, I needn't have. The weather was pretty amazing which made birding surprisingly tolerable: Saturday gray and damp with fog, but temps in the high 30's and no snow to contend with. Sunday morning temps still warm, but essentially clear skies where the sun was able to peep out every so often. Secondary to the mild weather, driving to and from the Soo was not a problem at all. Also, the snowmobilers were at a low number (always a good thing.)
On Friday's drive up I saw N. Shrike, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk and, I think, a Northern Goshawk. I should have stopped when I saw that bird, but didn't so I'll never know. Also, just above Clare a reddish Ruffed Grouse was eating buds in a tree over the highway.
I made it to the Soo in time for dinner with the group and for the meeting to discuss which birds people needed to see the next day. The leader, Lathe Claflin and co-leader Gary Siegrist were terrific. No ego or snobbishness, just wanted to get people on the birds.
So, drum roll please ... here are my ten life-birds, more or less in the order seen.
As for crossbills - there were none around and there have been very few reports of them all winter. The trees were essentially bare of pine cones. Also, no Boreal Chickadees which apparently may be seen in the same location as the Gray Jays. We also looked for Black-backed Woodpecker in a likely spot but one never presented itself. At this same location there was a small, flyover flock of Evening Grosbeaks that landed in some distant trees and were flying around. But, I got no color on them and did not hear them. A couple of folks saw the yellow and heard them. We did not see the white-phase Gyrfalcon that has been reported off and on.
Other good birds seen - Northern Shrike, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Bald Eagle. Surprisingly, we did not see any Pine Siskins.
I am still just completely amazed at such a trip.
It wasn't necessary to travel hundreds of miles this winter to see good birds. There were some excellent birds in nearby Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The big star was a Northern Lapwing discovered in mid-February near Thurmont in Frederick County, Maryland. This handsome European plover has only been seen a few dozen times in North America. Another rare European visitor was a Redwing (a thrush, not a blackbird) in Peace Valley Park, Bucks Co, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately it was a one-day wonder. More reliable by far was a Varied Thrush in Caledonia State Park, west of Gettysburg that was there from mid-December until at least February. Also near Honeybrook, PA for a week or two in December was a Gray Kingbird, a tropical bird that summers in Florida. A farm field South of Gettysburg hosted a dozen or more Short-eared Owls not too far from the Lapwing site.
The BBC Board met on January 11 and February 8, 2005. Both meetings focused upon dues and expenditures.
As of February, 55 members did not renew and membership dropped to 296.
Because our dues are higher than other MOS chapters and this might discourage renewals, the Board decided to reduce BBC dues by $5. Next year, an individual membership will be $35 (= $15 for BBC + $20 for MOS). Households will renew at $45 (= $20 for BBC + $25 for MOS). With the junior membership of $10 and sustaining membership of $100, half goes to MOS.
At the February meeting, the Board approved a 2005-2006 budget of $5,440. This is $645 less than last year and $1,400 more than anticipated income. We will use surplus funds from the past 3 years to cover the deficit and gradually reduce expenses to match income.
With fewer members, we seek to reduce the number of officers. Current officers and committee chairs are being asked to continue for another year, while the Board tries to streamline the structure.
At the March 1 Lecture/Annual Meeting, the larger BBC membership will be invited to vote on the proposed change in dues and the slate of (incumbent) officers.
On February 5 the Bird Museum hosted a Draw-In For Artists.
In January the Conservation Committee met with Mr. Connie Brown, Baltimore City Chief of Parks, with the hopes of improving communication.
As a member of the Maryland Conservation Council (MCC), the Board voted in January to approve an MCC-negotiated expansion of the Cove Point Liquefied Gas Facility in Calvert County.
(See the Board of Director's Meeting notes for details.)
Individual $35 ($20 for state MOS and $15 for chapter)
Household $45 ($25 for state MOS and $20 for chapter)
Junior $10 ($5 and $5)
Sustaining $100 ($50 and $50)
The following people have responded to say that they will serve another year in their offices with the Baltimore Bird Club.
President - Peter Webb
Vice President - Peter Lev
Treasurer - Martha Dunn
Recording Secretary - Carol Schreter
Corresponding Secretary - Roberta Ross
Birding in New York City probably brings to mind only pigeons and starlings, but In May of '04 we also found good birding there. An Elderhostel trip entitled, "Redtails and Redstarts: Birding in New York" provided us with a guide (Jack), accommodations, reasonably priced restaurants, transportation, and knowledgeable leaders.
Day one: We birded Central park with Starr Saphir, who is mentioned in the book "Redtails in Love." She knows the park and is an experienced and enthusiastic birder. Although our trip was supposed to stop at noon we continued to bird with her until mid-afternoon. We had a great day with seventeen warblers plus other passerines. We particularly enjoyed watching the Redtail's nest which is above the window of an expensive apartment building facing Central Park. As on any other birding trip, we noticed a line of birders with their scopes focused on the nest watching for glimpses of the young hawks in the nest.
Day two: During the afternoon we visited the Bronx Zoo where we saw "The World of Birds," an incredible display of live birds from all over the world. We did a lot of walking in the park, to and from the subway stations, to restaurants. To end each day we usually walked along the lovely Hudson River Esplanade.
Day three: We had a husband and wife team guide us through Prospect Park. They were efficient birders and we had a productive morning. We added Blackpoll and Nashville Warblers to our list and enjoyed great looks at both species.
Day four: We visited Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. We saw a nice variety of shore birds which included Oyster Catchers, Willet, Least Sandpiper, Terns and Osprey along with Yellow Warblers and Red-winged Blackbirds. We enjoyed watching Brants flying in loosely formed groups unlike the familiar "V" formation of Canada Geese.
On our final day we visited the American Museum of Natural History, took one last walk on the Esplanade and said our good-byes to Jack and the group.
We had ninety species while some others in the group had a hundred plus species. Was the trip worthwhile? YES! Not only because we enjoyed a variety of birds but also because there is always something special about being in New York.
Long-time member Virginia Donovan's husband Alex, died suddenly on Feb 18 of a heart attack. He is survived by five step-children. We're sorry for Virginia's loss. Our thoughts are with her.
Back Yard Birding and Beyond
Back Yard Birding and Beyond
By Gail Frantz
Kim Terry, February 27 : Hello! Greetings from Northern Baltimore County. This morning, we spotted a beautiful Bald Eagle in Northern Baltimore County, in the Upperco/Sparks area. What a sight to see on a frigid winter morning! Just wanted you to know how excited we were!!!!
Old Hanover Road
Early February: After the lovely snow, hungry birds included four Fox Sparrows and one immature White-crowned Sparrow. Saw a male turkey along the side of Glen Falls Rd. He sauntered nonchalantly into the bushes and disappeared into the woods. (GF)
Mark Linardi, Feb 21: The resident Great Horned Owls have set up shop again at there usual location off the stump-dump path. They have been in place for over a month. Hopefully this year a fledgling or two will make an appearance.
Earlier this year (actually late last year Nov/Dec) while searching for Keith's* Saw-whet Owl, I discovered a Screech Owl tucked away in a small tree cavity near the entrance road. The last time I checked a few weeks ago it was still there. I won't check on it again for several reasons. First of all it is near a high-traffic area and I don't want to call attention to the location and secondly you need to be very, very close to the hole to see the bird. This close inspection clearly agitates the bird and causes it undue stress. A couple of weeks ago as I was leaving the grounds I heard a Barred Owl calling from the Northern section of the woods. After searching the last couple of weekend mornings, finally yesterday I saw a single Barred Owl that allowed me some very good viewings from a distance of about 40 ft. I wouldn't be surprised if it one of last year's Lake Roland fledgling's that's staking out some new territory. It would be great to have a couple of species nesting in the same woods.I'll keep everyone informed of any significant updates.Now if only a "Boreal" would show up.
*Keith Costley found not one, but two Saw-whet Owls at Cylburn in the winter of 2002-3.
Ruth Culbertson, Feb 24: During the first substantial snow in a month Ruth enjoyed seven brilliantly colored male Cardinals with six females perching about the evergreens and framed against the white snow picking sunflower seeds from the ground. Ruth's Carolina Wren gobbled up several helpings of meal worms she placed in a wren feeder. After polishing off the last supply, the bird hopped to the glass door then looked inside as if to ask for more.
Elise Kreiss, February 28: Was home from work today, and kept an eye on the feeder activity. We had a Ruby-crowned Kinglet at the suet. It likes working around the base of the tree where the suet bits fall, but also clings directly to the feeder. We've had kinglets before, they seem to like the woodpile; but this is the first year we've seen one using the feeder. Last week we saw our first Creeper in the yard. Today it, too, was eating suet. We've also had a Fox Sparrow off and on. Like the White-throats, it likes scratching under the niger seed. One upside-down niger feeder has a bit of a crack in it, and the snow is dark with fallen seeds there. It also enjoys splashing around in the ground level water tray. I've noticed that when it does this, suddenly other birds decide that they need a bath or a drink, too.
Greg Futral, February 25: This evening I was returning to my car after visiting the best library in town, Barnes & Nobles. I heard a sort of cheeping sound that one would associate with baby birds. I looked around, and smack dab in the middle of the parking lot, on a tree no doubt a landscaper had added were about ten Cedar Waxwings. They did not seem to mind all the people moving under them. Cool, huh?
Bryce Butler reported a Chat in his yard last November. Guess what? As of March 4 Bryce wrote: The chat is still around, visiting the suet feeder several times a day during this last snow.
Let us hear about your Back Yard and Maryland Birding too!!!
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