Superb Owl Sunday

It’s a bad joke, a simple typo, and I shouldn’t find it as amusing as I do. Every year when the Super Bowl rolls around, the Superb Owl silliness adds an extra level of fun to the celebration. I appreciate seeing my favorite animals get some recognition, even if it’s just as a fringe gag tied to the big sporting event. Before settling in to watch the game (and commercials) with the family, food, and drinks, I devoted myself to a quest. The goal was to see as many species of owl as I could in one day, and I had a fair few options to choose from. I made an executive decision not to chase the Short-eared Owl seen sporadically all the way out on Dune Road, and I knew that Long-eared Owl was a long shot since there’d only been one sighting of a new bird at Jones after my lifer individual expired. That left me with 5 clear targets, and I had a spot staked out to try for each one of them.

I began my run before the sun, setting out for the North Shore around 5 AM. When I pulled up to the familiar corner adjacent to Stillwell Woods Park, the trees outside were still shrouded in total darkness. I kicked off my Superb Owl Search by attempting summon the Northern Saw-whet Owl that I heard at this site a few weeks prior. Just as before, my efforts to use the phone and car speakers were largely unsuccessful, failing to project the sound of recordings strongly. I began whistling again, combining the toots with rising call notes. Years of research on this species show that this species may be more common than many birders realize, but they are relatively inconspicuous in winter and often respond to playback in unusual ways or stay silent depending on the methods used. I paused, straining to make out a response in the early morning silence. Suddenly, I caught something, the faintest whisper of a whistle. I had to cup my ears and triangulate the source just to make sure the voice wasn’t in my head, and sure enough the Saw-whet was singing back to me a short distance down the road.

img_6191Be vewy, vewy quiet…

I took the tiny toots floating through the trees as a sign of spring’s approach. Male Saw-whets start singing more and more as winter wears on, preparing for their migration north to claim breeding territory. I had never heard the characteristic song of this species before, and it was only my second encounter with the third individual I’ve ever met. This was a fantastic start to my owling outing, and I turned back towards the south as the sun began to rise.

By the time I reached Jones Beach, it was light enough to see details on passing birds. Sunrise peeked through the clouds when I was in the middle of a blitz through the median, making a Hail Mary attempt at Long-eared Owl and any other woodland species that might be roosting in the pines. No luck, and the wind began to pick up as the day turned gray. I reached the beach itself a little after dawn, and the strong gusts were whipping sand around at high speed. A quick sweep of the visible shoreline in both directions revealed no Snowy Owls and no lens-toting observers. There were one or two distant figures checking the dunes for individuals that might be hunkered down to escape the gale, but I could see no sign of the white raptors when I scanned from several vantage points. I cut my losses and headed west towards Jamaica Bay, leaving the quiet beach behind me.

I’m no stranger to waiting in the blind at Big John’s Pond, so I knew that my first visit of the year was a gamble compared to breeding season stops to check out the nesting Barn Owls. There was not a lot of action on my walk over to the observation hide, and the iced-over water feature was similarly inactive. I watched the dark entrance hole for the better part of an hour, only briefly looking away for distractions like flyover ducks and swaying reeds. Fortunately, I had my binoculars trained on the box when a pale golden form briefly moved into view at the edge of the opening. It vanished just as quickly as it appeared, and I wasn’t even sure what body part it was, but it was definitely inside the nest box. Thus I added one of the trickier Long Island owls to my day total and my year list.

Regrettably, Owl #2 was the only other owl I managed to track down in my search. The cold, overcast conditions kept the reliable Screech-Owl at Massapequa Preserve hidden away in its roost cavity. The Great Horned Owl pair at Hempstead Lake has recently gone missing from their favored perches along the trail, and I personally hope that means they are busy nesting somewhere close by. I ended up getting two of the most challenging local owls rather than picking up any of the expected easy individuals, but every owl is a good owl. There were plenty of other birds around to keep me busy during the lulls between target attempts. Carolina and Winter Wrens popped up at several locations to entertain with their energetic antics, and waterfowl on the East Pond are a sure thing at this time of year.

I couldn’t resist stopping by Hendrickson Park to say hi to the Pink-footed Goose, which has now been present for over 3 months. I actually walked right past it at first, but I eventually spotted the bright pink feet and dark head among the throngs of Canada Geese grazing at the edge of the lake. I never would’ve believed that this far-flung bird would hang around through the whole winter at this tiny little park, but I’m happy to see that it has stuck to be successfully chased by so many people.

I heard the Red-headed Woodpecker calling from the treetops as I made my way out of the park. A day of fun behind me, I returned home to get ready for game time. I consider my hunt a success, but 2 species is the number to beat. I’ve encountered Saw-whets and Barn Owls rather infrequently during my birding career, so I’m plenty pleased that I got some time with them today. I’ve already seen more owl species in 2017 than I have in any other calendar year. Next February, I’ll certainly be out trying for more superb owls.

Year List Update, February 5 – 130 Species (+ Barn Owl)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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4 Responses to Superb Owl Sunday

  1. Pingback: Back in Black | Studying Life

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