Friday, March 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Owls. Part 2: Duxbury

Duxbury Beach
I decided that I needed to find more owls. I had also been reading a lot about the unprecedented irruption of snowy owls this winter and decided that I was going to try again to see one of these ephemeral specters before the warm weather pushes them back north. (To read more about it, follow the link here.) As snowy owls prefer habitat reminiscence of their tundra homes, I would have to venture further a field than Newton. I read that Duxbury Beach is one of the best places to find snowy owls, as this long strip of beach is great habitat and also narrow enough that there are not lots of places for them to hide. That, and the fact that the snowy owls that find their way to Logan Airport are captured (for the safety of both planes and owls) and then released at Duxbury.

Piping Plover
About an hour drive from Newton this thin ribbon of beach runs 4 miles from the main land to The Gurnet and separates Massachusetts and Duxbury Bays. I drove across Powder Point Bridge and and started my walk around 11:30am by walking north along the bay side looking for some reported Black-bellied Plovers that have been seen all winter. Without seeing them, I headed back south on the beach side and was pleasantly surprised when a small shorebird flushed in front of me. It wasn't a dunlin or sanderling, the most common shorebirds of the beach, but a piping plover!  Duxbury manages the beach to protect the endangered Piping Plover as this beach is a popular nesting site and beaches are increasingly developed. I quite enjoyed watching this little plover running around and pulling up small worms from the sand, reminiscent of a robin in wet grass. Later I managed to find a second hidden in the pebbly beach. The light gray back and black markings perfectly blend into the stones, making this second one nearly invisible until he flew off giving his high piping call.

Horned Lark
I continued to head south on the beach observing the common eiders, scoters, and noting that the horned grebes have started molting by shedding their drab black and white winter plumage for the golden horns for which they are named. The snowy owls are usually seen around High Pines or Gurnet Marsh, both of which are miles down the beach, so I took the time to enjoy the great scenery and the flora and fauna. The horned larks were one of my favorites. While unlikely to be found much in Newton, they thrive in barren environments like beach dunes and plowed fields. Their distinctive yellow and black facial pattern and their soft high tinkling bell-like song (listen to a sample here) has quickly made this a favorite. I continued down the road, occasionally using a cross-over to scan the beach side, turning up sanderlings, dunlin, great cormorants, and a distant American oystercatcher. The oystercatcher was a pleasant surprise as they have only just returned to MA. This bulky black and white shorebird with its long, thick orange bill certainly stood out from the gulls napping around it.

Snowy Owl
After about three miles I scanned the bay trying to identify any water foul and just as I reached the edge of the water with my binoculars, there it was! A large white snowy owl on a distant sand dune. Luckily this bird was quite close to the road, so I carried on and was able to get great views from the road. His head was quite white and round with piercing yellow eyes, while his body was mostly white with some dark barring. Younger owls tend to be darker, so this certainly wasn't a very young owl. Occasionally he would look straight at us, but he didn't seem too concerned (the picture to the right was provided to me by another birder present). He seemed almost docile sitting on this tuft of grass. Seeing this arctic visitor on on our Massachusetts shores was almost a shock, though he seemed quite at home in the sparse landscape. This brought back my first snowy owl encounter from just a few months ago, when one owl flew by me on his way to an evening perch. Watching this ghostly owl's slow, strong wing beats really hammered home the size and power of the snowy. When I had my fill of the snowy owl, I continued my way down the beach. My parting shot was of this snowy owl in stark contrast to the dark storm clouds and dusky marsh as I walked north back to my car.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Barred Owl at Cold Spring Park!

I was just reading the Massbird list archives and saw that our own Pete Gilmore found a Barred Owl at Cold Spring Park this past Saturday! He found the owl right where the Cochituate Aqueduct crosses Plymouth Road. The Owl was then re-found on Tuesday by the vertical jump station of the life course trail (just north of the aqueduct and off-leash area for dogs).

So I decided to make my first visit to Cold Spring Park to see what I could find. Yesterday at 7pm I started from Plymouth Rd. and the park was very quiet with only a few Canada geese calling in the background. I made my way along the life course trail and was just about to give up when a rabbit made a bee-line across the trail and towards the houses to the west and a squirrel was making some unusual calls. In the gathering dusk I could just make out a large set of brown/grey wings swoop down towards the rabbit and then wing off into the woods. I lost sight of it as my eyes struggled to make out shapes or movement. Could this have been the owl? What ever bird of prey I saw was certainly a silent flier as the only thing I could hear was the wing-whir of a woodcock displaying high above. I will have to come back to see if I can't get a better sighting of this owl.

A Tale of Two Owls. Part 1: Newton

I wanted to make this post sooner, but it took me a little while to clean up the sound recording enough to make a good post. These adventures that I am relating are from earlier this winter.

One Friday I decided to head home early from work and thought I might try to use the last rays of sunlight to make my way through Houghton Gardens and Hammond Pond. That morning had already been quite successful finding many of the regulars on pond but also found a ruddy duck, which is quite a treat for Hammond Pond. Up on the ledges of the Webster Conservation lands the trees were just dripping with goldfinches quite an amazing site. So on my way home, I was just hoping again for a productive walk. But I arrived latter than I was expecting and dusk was in full progress as I reached Houghton Gardens.

A Great Horned Owl
I just entered the gate and had a few blurry glimpses of sparrows when this faint low hoot came to my ears. "Who's awake. Me Too." I snapped to attention. A Great Horned Owl! I looked up in the the tall pines and sure enough a large bird was sitting at the very top of the tree, almost like a star or angel on top of a Christmas Tree. The light was quite dim, but through my binoculars I could make out the large ear tufts and the white "bib" on the throat that firmly marked this red-tailed hawk sized bird as the great horned owl. I held as still as possible as he continued to announce his presence. I have seen and heard a great horned owl once before, but never with such "good" light. I was struck by how close this owl was and yet its low hoots seemed to be coming from a great distance away, a trick of the low pitch of his calls.

As I continued to marvel at this large owl floating on top of his tree, a second hoot answered the first  and a second owl came silently winging into the Gardens from the direction of Hammond Pond. They were duetting! The audio clip in the movie is actually of the two owls duetting, the male has a slightly deeper voice than his mate. In the midst of the coldest part of our winter these Great Horned Owls were already paired! I later learned that these owls start pairing off in late fall and breed in January/February. So even as I was missing the birdsongs of warmer months, in the heart of Newton's Winter, I found these owls to help to fill in the gap.

The first set of hoots is of a single owl, while the subsequent hoots both owls are duetting.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Turkey Update

Yesterday I was taking the T home and when the T crossed Glen Ave. in Newton Centre, I looked up, and was rewarded with a sighting of a group of about 10 wild turkeys in someones front yard. I wonder if this rafter of turkeys live in the Webster Conservation Area? While I have no pictures to share, any time I can "bird" from the train, its been a good ride.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Beginings of Spring

I stopped by Hammond Pond for a few minutes this weekend. Mostly it was the regulars, hooded and common mergansers, mallards and a single black duck, and ring-billed gulls. The great black-backed gull who had stayed for a few weeks was gone, nor could I find the ring-necked ducks.

But my walk to work this morning was much more eventful. As soon as I stepped outside the house I was greeted by the two noted "phoebe" mating call of the black-caped chickadee, usually one of my first signs of spring and the impending chorus of birdsong. I do miss the slightly more musical four-noted song of the more southerly Carolina chickadee: "fee-bee fee-bay". The song sparrow who has been gracing the us with his complex song was absent from his usual tree. But before I turned down the next street I had an excellent consolation prize. The slurred liquid whistles of a single northern cardinal rang out and I looked up to find this brilliant red specimen singing with full morning light to show him off in stark contrast to the branches of the bare oak he was perching in. This cardinal certainly knows that spring is on the way.