The Long And The Short Of It
What a difference a week makes! Last weekend, we visited Croton Point Park in search of both of Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl. We saw an abundance of the former, but none of the latter. With spring drawing nigh, the window for spotting the short-eared owl at Croton Point may be rapidly closing. So, since we didn’t at first succeed, we had no choice but to try again.
This time, we were joined in our quest by my wonderful aunt, Janet, who was more than a little jealous that she missed our last excursion. Also along for the ride was Jessica, my enthusiastic young cousin. The poor thing, an budding bird watcher, had never seen a Bald Eagle in the wild, so our secondary goal was to find her a view worthy of this magnificent raptor.
On some days, success comes easy. Just like last week, we no sooner entered the park than we spotted a distinctive silhouette perched upon one of the mound’s many markers. Despite never having seen the short-eared owl before, we knew this bird instantly. Who could mistake that proud head and thick neck, the rounded edges of its crown and wings? What other owl shows so little respect for the nocturnal/diurnal dichotomy? We might not have known Asio flammeus prior to this outing, but by its end, we were almost intimate.
It is no exaggeration to say that we saw short-eared owls just about everywhere we rested our eyes. Perched on poles, sitting in the grass, coursing, soaring, even fighting for territory, these owls were the undisputed masters of the mound. The mysteries of this owl’s intricately etched charcoal on bone plumage, the dark commas on white underwings, the subtly barred tail, the faint blush of buff on the female’s wings, became apparent to us. We never expected so many spectacular and varied views, but I’m not complaining. One’s first time with a new bird should always be so satisfying.
We weren’t the only ones who went home happy. Jessica was understandably impressed by the owls, but she had eagles on her mind. Fortunately, she was in the right environment. No locale within 100 miles fulfills the promise of a bald eagle sighting with the certainty of Croton Point in winter. I’ll admit, we did have to work for it, mainly because we could hardly see other birds through the thick cloud of short-eared owls. However, a stroll over the mound delivered us a vantage from which we could admire a large adult in full plumage both at rest and in flight. This was an eagle worthy of a first sighting. Jessie was obviously elated. I think the Core Team just picked up a new birding partner.
We didn’t do much else in the way of birding, since Mason grew weary of the cold and our constant cries of “Wow, look at that owl flying right towards us!” We spotted the Long-eared Owl from last week, same grove, different tree, as well as numerous Northern Harrier, an even more automatic species at Croton Point than a bald eagle. Oddly enough, despite their previous ubiquity, there was nary a rough-legged hawk to be seen this time. We spotted a single rough-leg along with a number of red-tails. We also viewed geese and swans in the water, gulls overhead, and something suspiciously kinglet-shaped winging it towards the treeline, but there is no doubt which bird ruled the day. The short-eared owl has taken its inevitable place on the Core Team life list, a superb #301.