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Responses to a True Rarity

Watching a Northern Hawk Owl, and Other Watchers

  • A northern hawk owl that has been haunting the open fields near Waterbury Center, Vt., quickly became a magnet for birders from around the Northeast. The hawk owl is an inhabitant of the far north and is seldom seen in New England. (Robert Salter photograph)

    A northern hawk owl that has been haunting the open fields near Waterbury Center, Vt., quickly became a magnet for birders from around the Northeast. The hawk owl is an inhabitant of the far north and is seldom seen in New England. (Robert Salter photograph)

  • Robert Salter photograph

    Robert Salter photograph

  • Robert Salter photograph

    Robert Salter photograph

  • A northern hawk owl that has been haunting the open fields near Waterbury Center, Vt., quickly became a magnet for birders from around the Northeast. The hawk owl is an inhabitant of the far north and is seldom seen in New England. (Robert Salter photograph)
  • Robert Salter photograph
  • Robert Salter photograph

The guy with the Red Sox cap and Massachusetts plates emerged from his car just about the same time I got out of ours. I pointed at him and called out, “Let me guess why you’re here.”

It was no mystery. Word had circulated via the various listservs that report bird sightings, both the unusual and run-of-the-mill: A northern hawk owl had taken a liking to the open fields just north of Waterbury Center. The hunting apparently was good because the owl had stayed in the vicinity for a couple of weeks or so.

A hawk owl is no run-of-the-mill bird. Year-round residents of the far north, they rarely venture this far south. When they do, it’s usually just a single bird who has erratically wandered beyond the species’ normal range — in contrast with the mini-invasion of snowy owls that are showing up all over the eastern U.S. as they search for food. There have been sporadic reports of hawk owl sightings over the years, but always in places or at times when I found the opportunity to look for one resistible. I had never seen one.

Neither had the guy from Massachusetts, or Kathy Thompson, a friend and fellow birder who had emailed me the night before suggesting we go look for the snowy owl that had been spotted in Killington. She readily accepted my counteroffer: the hawk owl in Waterbury.

This was a third hawk owl attempt by the Massachusetts guy. His second failure had come just recently when he drove from the Boston area to somewhere deep in Maine. “Missed it by a day,” he said. I could relate, having shown up one day late last year to view the great gray owl that had created a sensation in Etna, near the Appalachian Trail. “Maybe the third time will prove a charm,” he said, hopefully.

It did. Not five minutes later, while Thompson and I were still scanning the open field alongside Route 100, I noticed the Massachusetts guy gesticulating from down the road a bit. He was pointing at a spruce tree in the backyard of a house on the other side of the road. Bingo. The owl was perched at the very top, surveying the open field beyond.

The view of the bird from Route 100 wasn’t bad. Although it was cloudy, the light wasn’t completely flat, and some of the owl’s distinctive markings could be made out through binoculars as it swiveled its head. But the bird was still too far away to make out a lot of detail, and the constant traffic on Route 100 made it a less than ideal spot to spend a long time gazing at the owl. A couple of other guys who had arrived just after we did approached the house and noticed quite a few footprints up the driveway. They headed up, and we followed. Owls are pretty accommodating to birdwatchers once they’re found: They tend to stay perched in the same place for a while and are not at all bothered when admirers assemble below.

The homeowner happened to be on his way down the driveway to run an errand and told us we were welcome. In fact, he had posted a note on his front door that read something like, “Yes, you have my permission to spend as much time as you like watching the hawk owl.”

The Massachusetts guy surprised me; he got a good look at the owl through his binoculars and spent maybe five minutes checking him out. He departed even before Thompson set up her scope to zoom in on the bird and present it in all of its magnificent detail. Even if it had been a fairly common species that I had seen numerous times before and hadn’t made much of an effort to see, I would have spent more time looking at the bird than this guy who had driven three hours to see this rarity for the first time in his life.

Indeed, a hawk owl is a bird to behold. Its yellow eyes and white face are framed in a way that suggests an alert fierceness, and are set off by a flattened, speckled crown that gives the bird a striking handsomeness. Although smaller than barred owls — bird guides list the hawk owl at 16 inches tall, compared with the barred at 21 inches — it has a squat stature that suggests a more powerful hunter. I was not surprised later to read the Sibley field guide compare the hawk owl’s behavior to that of the shrike , a nonraptor predator that also flies from tree-top to tree-top, where it perches and looks menacingly down on its hunting ground.

We were chatting and marveling with the two other owl-watchers (from Maryland; they were visiting someone in southern New Hampshire when they heard about this owl) when suddenly one of us noticed that the owl was no longer there. It had alighted with none of us witnessing its departure, which is truly a missed opportunity. Seeing a raptor take off or in flight is a chance to admire a different aspect of a bird from its appearance or mere existence.

Fortunately, the owl soon returned to the spruce, and one of the guys from Maryland observed that its flight was less like an owl and more like an accipiter, a family of hawks that propel themselves forward with a few wingflaps followed by a glide. The observation was not only informative, it allowed me to quickly ID the guy as Above Me in birding skills; I hadn’t witnessed owl flight enough to make any general observations about it. When the same fellow later noted that barring patterns on raptors’ chests often can be used to determine their age, I upgraded his classification to Out of My League.

By the time the owl took off a second time, we had been joined by a Montpelier man and his teenage daughter, both of whom observed the owl with an identical enraptured smile. At that point, the bird had given us enough gazing time that we could no longer ignore our increasingly cold feet and hands.

And when we walked back down to Route 100, a flock of people had gathered along its shoulder, armed with binoculars, scopes and cameras — the sort of scene I find amusing because I can’t help but wonder what the nonbirding world thinks about such gatherings. Do they just dismiss us as strange-looking people acting oddly? Or do they sense that anything that could draw this type of crowd must be truly thrilling?

Martin Frank can be reached at mfrank@vnews.com or 603-727-3222.

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