Great Gray Expectations

Out of all the birds in all the world, owls are the closest to my heart. These impressive predators have a unique magic all their own. Any encounter with any species, no matter the circumstances, is always an exciting event. I’ve spent much of my free time this year chasing after owls, and the results have been well worth the effort. After my recent Hawk Owl hunt in Canada, I learned that I unwittingly drove right past a major owl opportunity. This winter, a number of Great Gray Owls have invaded the city parks and surrounding area of Montreal. I was unaware of my proximity to these ghosts of the northern forest, so I ended up missing them entirely on my January outing. It was somewhat disappointing, but I knew that I would find another excuse to get out and see them in the not-too-distant future. I did not expect that my next chance would come so soon, when a pair of Great Grays was discovered along the far northern border of New York in early February. This species occasionally turns up outside its typical range during cyclic irruptions, but there have only been a handful of individuals sighted in New York during the past few decades. This was a report worth chasing.

I hoped that I wouldn’t have to make the long drive to the great white north on my own, so I rallied the troops and started asking around. There were plenty of interested parties, but timing and availability played a role in trimming down my potential recruits. The final car crew was established: Me, Brendan, Brent, and Tracey. We met at my house after work on Friday and condensed our gear into one vehicle. We made it through the city and the capitol region after a few hours of driving in the dark, settling for the night in Tupper Lake. We’d decided to crash once again at the Red Top Inn which served us so well during the Ross’s Gull twitch, so I suppose that it’s officially a tradition now. At sunrise, the four of us woke to load our clothes, optics, and snacks into the minivan and continue on our way.

The ice fisherman were out on the lake bright and early, and I spotted a River Otter slipping from the snowy surface into one of the few patches of open water. A brief detour through the town itself revealed our first targets: a flock of Evening Grosbeaks at a backyard feeder. These were my first New York state individuals, and we also picked up some Pine Siskins among the assembled goldfinches. Brendan and Brent caught a brief glimpse of some flyby Bohemian Waxwings, but sadly Tracey and I missed those winged wanderers. A brief scan as we drove past the local Northern Shrike’s favored spot failed to locate the bird, but we weren’t slowing down. We’d already received word that the Great Grays had been observed hunting the fields at the stakeout. This was great news, especially since they’d failed to show up until early evening on Friday, but we still had an hour and a half to go. Onwards!

Our journey up to Massena was scenic and easy, highlighted by flyover Pileated Woodpeckers and groups of ravens. Before long, the roadside signage welcomed us to Robert Moses State Park, which strangely shares the name with our own Long Island seashore. There was a line of cars pulled over on the shoulder as we approached the meadow where the owls had been seen, but when we stepped out the nearby birders told us the owls had gone missing for about an hour. We had to consider our options carefully, trying not to let our concerns get the better of us as we outlined a gameplan for the rest of the day. Everyone on the team agreed that the Great Grays were our top priority, so we were willing to stick around until nightfall if we had to. That being said, it would be nice to connect with some other species on the way south, which would hopefully find us home before Sunday. A brief jaunt to the end of the road resulted in a Barred Owl sighting as promised by those who’d arrived earlier. I discussed our options with my companions as we drove back to search for the sleepy bird’s larger cousins. As we came around the bend, we found a huge crowd with optics all fixated on the same point.  That’s a sight for sore eyes!

I parked at the edge of the pavement, but we were still far enough back that I couldn’t see the subject of all the attention. I grabbed my camera and binoculars and stepped out of the door as Brendan gave me a positive wave from his vantage point a few yards ahead. My excitement built as I approached, coming eye-to-eye with a familiar, formidable face.

The Great Gray Owl was perched atop a short snag a several feet back from the road. These majestic predators are generally unafraid of humans, as they so rarely encounter them in their wooded homes up north. The owl surveyed the scene around it without a care in the world for the awestruck crowd of admirers, listening intently for rodent prey beneath the snow. All of the things that make owls special are turned up to 11 for the Great Gray: incredible senses, silent flight, otherworldly appearance. This bird is a fine-tuned hunting machine, and it looks damn good while doing it. I last found myself in the presence these mystical phantoms in 2013, and I’d almost forgotten just how impressive they are. For Brendan and me, observing the owl in our home state was a real treat. For Brent and Tracey, this individual was a lifer. We all watched, transfixed, as the bird moved to a new branch a small distance away.

By length and height, this spectacular species is the largest owl in the world, but their imposing size is a result of dense, fluffy plumage. In terms of mass, Great Grays are far lighter than burlier birds like Snowies, Great Horns, and the other eagle-owls. I watched as the owl meticulously preened its feathers, puffing up and scratching hard-to-reach spots with its fuzzy feet. When a group of crows noisily passed overhead, the Gray compressed into a tube shape and watched the bothersome birds through squinted eyes. They failed to notice it in this camouflaged posture, and once they were gone the owl resumed its scanning the area.

I expected to see a number of familiar faces from the birding community, and folks came from far and wide to view the visitors. I was, however, surprised to see fellow former Cornellian Andy arriving on the scene. He was packing some of the best equipment that the Lab can provide, and it was great to catch up with against the backdrop of a great bird. The owl eventually took off and headed back into the trees, which prompted us to continue on and explore elsewhere.

I set off with my friends to check for a few other nearby birds. The St. Lawrence river hosted waterfowl and flocks of gulls, which contained a number of Glaucous Gulls making their way along the international border. The fruiting trees throughout the park were attended to by robins and Cedar Waxwings, and we also noticed a Red Squirrel. On our way back past the owl spot, I noticed that the throng had turned its collective gaze towards the fields on the opposite side of the road. A gray lump sitting in the snow prompted me to pull over and take a peek. This was the second Great Gray which had been frequenting the area, apparently having plunged into the grass for a scurrying mammal. The bird lifted off and headed towards a dense tangle of brush, providing a great last look at our primary target.

Driving south, we laid out an itinerary for seeking out additional boreal birds. Our next stop was Sabattis Bog, a renowned location for specialty species. It was a lot sunnier and clearer than the weather on my last visit, and we found plenty of birds working the feeder. Black-capped Chickadees predominated, joined by Blue Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Hairy Woodpecker.

The stars of the show here were the friendly, fluffy Gray Jays. These charming little corvids are brazen opportunists, earning them a variety of colorful, outdoorsy nicknames such as Camp Robber and Whisky Jack. I’ve seen these birds before in the Rockies and hand fed confiding individuals in Canada, but this was my first New York state tick. The jays bounced from branch to branch, floating down like paper airplanes to pick food from the ground around the feeder. I always have fun when Gray Jays are involved.

Our incredible fortune started to wear a little thin as we continued downstate. We’d done a lot of research into potential checkpoints for hard-to-find species, but many of the pullouts and side roads we hoped to stop at were blocked by deep snow banks. We pushed through the snow at a trailhead near Shaw Pond, but we failed to locate the Black-backed Woodpeckers that had been reported in the region. The holes and peeled bark on the trees along the path were evidence that the birds were frequenting the area, but the would-be lifer failed to show.

We made it to Newcomb as the glow of late afternoon began to light the High Peaks. Some residential properties had seen reports of grosbeaks, waxwings, and woodpeckers during recent weeks, but we found that their fruit trees had been stripped bare. Unsurprisingly, the absence of food resulted in an absence of birds. We briefly settled at a lookout to admire the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Wildlife encounters are great, but the scenery is always one of the highlights of a visit to the Adirondacks.

We made a last ditch side trip down Tahawus Road, a good spot to look and listen for Boreal Chickadee. Our car was joined by Stella’s crew, and we used the fading light to slowly travel down the road in search of the birds. Brent spotted a Northern Flying Squirrel that stuck its head out of a tree hole to investigate our pishing, and he briefly heard a promising vocalization when he was a ways ahead of us. Tracey and I heard generic chickadee peeps coming from a lone bird in the trees where he’d located the candidate, but it sadly moved on without showing itself or making any diagnostic noises. A few more teases in the form of glimpsed flybys or quiet sounds caught our attention, but we failed to clinch a satisfactory ID of Boreal Chickadee this time. I’ll have to add this bird to my state list on another day. Perhaps the warm weather months later this year will find me back here to search for the specialty birds I missed on this trip. It’s always worth coming back!

In shifts, we completed the journey south and made it back to Lynbrook before midnight. Our adventure was wildly successful and exceedingly fun, with no shortage of memories made along the way. Good friends and good birds are a tried-and-true recipe for success. My reunion with the Great Gray Owls means that I have seen 9 species owl already in 2017, the most I’ve yet seen in a single calendar year. Given that it’s only February, I would love to crack into the double digits. Ideally, I can add some new species to my life list as part of that goal. Let’s see how the rest of the year goes.

Year List Update, February 18 – 140 Species (+ Pine Siskin, Wild Turkey, Great Gray Owl, Glaucous Gull, Gray Jay)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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3 Responses to Great Gray Expectations

  1. Pingback: February Fun | Studying Life

  2. Pingback: 1-2-3 Break! | Studying Life

  3. Pingback: Going Gray | Studying Life

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