Boxing Day Owl – Peru New York

28 12 2008
Northern Hawk Owl - Curt McDermott

Northern Hawk Owl - Curt McDermott

About a week back on the Christmas Bird Count in Peru New York they managed to find a Northern Hawk Owl. A beautiful and much sought after diurnal northern owl, which although it irregularly wanders in winter is tough to find anywhere within the US (see range map).  When I realized one was hanging around a ‘mere’ 4 hours from home it immediately got my twitching senses going and I kept tabs on the latest reports to see if I might make a mad holiday dash for it.

I had spoken to my friend (and Saw-whet whisperer) Chrissy Guarino and she was equally excited about the possibility of seeing the bird and so along with her parents Shari and Val we arranged to make the mad dash up there the day after Christmas. So Friday morning arrived and shock horror my car had decided to completely freak out on me. A couple of tear filled phone calls later 😉 and they had generously offered to swing out of their route and pick me up a little closer to home.

Luckily from Danbury it was pretty much a straight shot up I87 to the bird with just a few brief stops for fuel (coffee, beef jerky and trail mix) and bathroom breaks (caused by the coffee). The scenery along the way was magnificent especially after we left Albany and started to hit the Adirondacks. No time to stop and take in the view but plenty of pictures of these stunning ice and snow covered mountains, dense pine forest and northern bogs were reeled off from the car as we whizzed past – maintaining the appropriate speed limit the whole way of course 😉

I  think  Shari, Val, Chrissy and I all tend not to make too many forays into the field chasing birds but this was a special bird. My guide for twitching is ‘how likely am I to see this bird somewhere else?’ and with the difficulty of finding Northern Hawk Owl anywhere in the world (except perhaps Alaska), having one so close was too good to miss.

On arrival we were not disappointed. This was one absolutely stunning bird (and pleasantly easy to find). The bird has the head of a skunk and a beautifully barred body as well as beady eyes, which gave the bird a cute but kind of tough appearance all rolled into one. About as big as a crow it flew from lamp post to lamp post along the edges of the local orchards searching for prey (mainly small mammals such as voles). The way it flew is kind of cool, flying down and swooping up onto the poles much in the same way a Northern Shrike tends to swoop up on it’s perches.

Whilst there we ran into Chrissy’s friends Curt and Ken McDermott who had snapped some great pictures of the owl (which he kindly donated for the blog – thanks Curt!). Curt you may recall was the guy who had the Hoary Redpoll visiting his feeders last year over in NY State which was probably one of the last birds I bothered chasing after, and which made the focal point of a great Sunrise Birding trip over state lines last winter.

Whilst we were chatting about the owl Chrissy mentioned seeing a flock of something in flight, as I looked down the road I spotted a bunch of waxwings perched in a tree. I decided we had to get a better view of these birds, seeing how far north we were. Curt and Ken raced ahead in their car, quickly followed by myself, Val, Shari, and Chrissy. As I got out of the car I heard Curt say ‘they are all Bohemians’, but by then they were all suddenly up and in flight and making their way up and over the horizon – disaster.

As birding gloom was about to set in, Chrissy or Curt (at that point I was too deliriously tired to recall) suddenly spotted another waxwing flock in another tree. I got on them first and noticed the waxwings had turned into Starlings! Confused, I told Chrissy it was Starlings in the tree, but she was insisting it was waxwings and then aha! the penny dropped – we were looking at two different trees! As I corrected my sights I realized that there were 20 or so Bohemian Waxwings sitting in a nearby tree, and all of a sudden another flock arrived with 40 or so more birds joining the first (with one Cedar Waxwing) – an amazingly fortuitous addition to an already brilliant birding day.

We drove a little further down the road and soaked up the sight of these magically beautiful birds. For me this was the end of a long quest. I remember as a five year old kid reading my dads Readers Digest guide to British Birds and being drawn over and over again back to the Waxwing illustration and thinking about the day I might see these beautiful birds and here they finally were. I had been teased back into the word of birding by their US cousins but here they were, the real deal, and not the sad one or two I could have twitched in Connecticut last year but a huge chirruping flock. Absolutely magical and the kind of unexpected bonus that makes birding so exciting.

A wonderful Boxing Day treat with great birds, great people and a beautiful scenic route to the bird – one of those days that reminds you why you love birding so much.



One response

30 12 2008

WOW!! What a day…wish I was there to see those magnificent bohemian waxwings and northern hawk owl. Thanks for the great looks in the photos.

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