Going Owl the Way

I slept like a baby at my motel in Quebec, exhausted by hours in the car. I knew that I still had to complete the long journey home in one shot. After continental breakfast and check-out, I brushed the new-fallen snow of the car and hit the road. The expansive fields on the outskirts of town stretched out of view through the swirling flurries, but I kept a sharp eye out despite poor visibility. A lumpy bundle atop a distant tree caught my attention, and I was rewarded with a Snowy Owl when I pulled over to check it out with my binoculars. I’d heard that there were several in the area, but it was still a welcome find. I’m always surprised to encounter these birds perching on branches rather than dunes. Still, this was not the owl I was looking for.

Two intersections to the west, I arrived at the Chemin du Roy in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures. On one side of the road, open brushy habitat gradually faded into forest. On the other, residential properties guarded a slope down to the banks of the St. Lawrence River. This was the place.

I made a quick circuit of the area, sweeping my gaze across the highest points available. On my second pass, a dark silhouette darted across the road and swooped up to the top of a pole. There was no mistaking the angular, raptorial shape and large-headed profile. I had found the Northern Hawk Owl.

This is a bird I’ve dreamed about seeing since I first read about it in one of my many “big books of animals” as a child. I like hawks, I like owls, what’s not to love? I’d had my share of misses over the course of my life, including years of New York visitors that I didn’t know about. Dad and Mom once spotted what was almost certainly a Hawk Owl as we drove through Alaska, but it was gone by the time we turned around and drove back. I’d seen a tantalizingly torpedo-shaped blob atop a conifer a few days prior, but our tour bus from the Arctic Circle was moving too fast for me to confirm that it was even a bird, let alone make a species ID. I wanted this bird badly, and I wanted to get it right. Even I was surprised that I was determined enough to plan an entire international trip just to track one down. I was incredibly relieved that it payed off.

No matter how much you’ve read about and studied an animal, you never fully know it until you’ve seen it doing its thing in the wild. This Hawk Owl was no exception. I knew that they aren’t small, but I was still surprised to see that bird which acts like the small-but-fierce kestrel or shrike is closer in size to the formidable Cooper’s Hawk. I was aware that they are largely diurnal, but I still got a kick out of watching an owl hunt actively and move from perch to perch during the middle of the day. I have taught plenty of people that even powerful avian predators are lighter than they look thanks to specialized skeletons and the deceptive fluff factor of feathers, but the sight of this ferocious hunter surveying for prey on the tippy-top of a tree was objectively ridiculous. That one snuck up on me too: the owl had flown off out of view a few minutes earlier and I turned to find it suddenly sitting there like a bizarre Christmas ornament.

The owl came back from one of its forays with a rodent clutched in its talons. I could not say whether this was caught in the wild or provided by an unseen photographer hoping to get a close action shot, an all-too-common occurrence. The snow started to intensify, and the Hawk Owl stared down at me from its lofty perch. It bobbed and rotated its head while its eyes stayed locked with mine before digging into its meal. I reluctantly moved to leave the bird in peace, but the clouds broke and the sun came out when I was just a few miles down the road. I couldn’t resist turning back for one last look at my target in the improved lighting. It really was a magnificent creature, well-worth the wait. This species definitely joined the ranks of my all-time favorite animals. Content with my dream encounter, I finally packed away my gear and started home.

The landscapes framing the roads I traveled were often cripplingly beautiful. The ice-choked waters of the St. Lawrence made for a dramatic winter wonderland that I couldn’t resist photographing from the roadside.

I was scanning relentlessly as I continued southwest. A shrike here, a Snowy Owl there, but shockingly my target was difficult to find. I finally spotted the sign I was looking for at an exit: Tim Horton’s. I needed the WiFi provided by this iconic Canadian coffee shop to plug in my GPS coordinates for the return trip. After fueling up on gas and poutine at a nearby rest stop, I was on my way once more.

It was a long drive back to the United States border, but eventually the tall buildings of Montreal appeared ahead of me. Had a understood that the city itself was hosting an impressive local invasion of spectacular Great Gray Owls, I would’ve extended my stay in Canada by at least a few more hours. Unfortunately, I’d misinterpreted the memos I’d overheard. I failed to realize how many birds were present and how closely I was passing by until I saw other people’s photos back at home. There’s no such thing as a perfect trip…you need an excuse to get back out there! I did detour to Sabattis Bog in the Adirondacks, following a tip on where to find the specialty Gray Jays. They failed to show during my brief visit, but I was charmed by the chickadees and awestruck by the snowy scenery.

There were several vistas on my adventure through the Dacks that made me audibly gasp or groan. The forests and mountains made for natural entertainment as I slowly worked my way downstate. I’m hoping to return to the park  in the near future to pick up a few more of the unusual and localized creatures that call these woods home. Darkness fell before I left the mountain roads behind me, and apart from a Coyote crossing the parkway the rest of the drive home was long and mostly uneventful. The tunes kept me going all the way, and I made it through the Bronx to Long Island in record time. I breathed a sigh of relief as I finally pulled into the driveway back at the house. It was a wildly successful trip, highlighted by dramatic encounters with two unforgettable birds, but I was just happy to get out from behind the wheel.

Year List Update, January 29 – 129 Species (+ Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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2 Responses to Going Owl the Way

  1. Pingback: Great Gray Expectations | Studying Life

  2. Pingback: Going Gray | Studying Life

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