Seeking out Strigiformes on Superb Owl Sunday is now something of a personal tradition. This “holiday’s” efforts were much more subdued than last year, since I elected to sleep in rather than wake up before the sun. There were several factors that led me to this decision, which seems counterintuitive for locating nocturnal birds. It’s been a bit of a quiet year for forest-dwelling northern species, so I wasn’t too optimistic about my odds of finding Saw-whets or Long-ears in the wooded areas of the Island. A reasonably breezy forecast also put a damper on my expectations for Short-eared Owl, since these aerial hunters are typically most active in still conditions. What’s more, the weathermen warned of rain arriving in the afternoon. My search would be a short, targeted strike limited to the first half of the day. These criteria left me with 4 good targets: Snowy, Great Horned, Eastern Screech, and Barn.
A little eBird recon revealed that Jamaica Bay was the best place to start my day. I set out on the trails shortly after sunrise, hoping to find my two open-country owls early so I could move on to subsequent sites. The first sighting of interest that greeted me was a small mixed flock of sparrows foraging in the brush. Pishing the birds out of hiding delivered my first Field and American Tree Sparrows of the year. When I turned my scope on a Barn Owl nest, I was fortunate enough to spy a spectral face squinting out of the darkness at me. Jamaica Bay is one of the few reliable places for in our region for this species, and it had been over a year since my last encounter. The refuge’s most conspicuous box failed to produce any offspring last season after an individual apparently died inside the structure. Fortunately, there are many boxes scattered throughout the Bay, and at least a few of these are known to be occupied currently. A new year means new opportunities. I’ve got my fingers crossed for more fluffy owlet cuteness this spring!
Several other nature enthusiasts kept me company as I continued out the West Pond loop. I was able to relocate 2 Snowy Owls roosting in the marshes to the north. At least 4 different Snowies have been frequenting the islands of Jamaica Bay in recent weeks, part of the ongoing irruption taking place this winter. The birds were far too distant for decent photographs: no doubt an influence on their choice of real estate! The abundance of prey in the frozen wetlands are another major draw, with countless waterfowl and small mammals available for the taking. At the moment, as usual, the powerful predators were content to rest, surveying their temporary kingdom from their icy perches as they waited for nightfall. With a pair of species under my belt, tying my record from last year, I hopped in the car and headed east.
Since the temperature was quite agreeable for an overcast day in early February, I was fairly confident that the accommodating Screech-Owl at Massapequa Preserve would be sunning itself at the entrance to its tree hole. Sure enough, Old Reliable was blissfully basking and readily visible as soon as I walked up to the creekside vantage point. Being so close to the Suffolk border, I briefly abandoned my Superb Owl search to chase the Eared Grebe at Oak Beach. At first, there were only Horned Grebes to be found, though the Barrow’s Goldeneye was present among its Common cousins. I ended up calling it quits after an hour long stakeout, but I was promptly summoned back by John Gluth. He kindly stayed on the bird until I made it back, and then I was on my way once again. Unfortunately, the resident Great Horns had made themselves scarce by the time I reached Hempstead Lake. Their absence was only a minor disappointment for my fantastic morning, and I returned home with a successful owl hat trick just as the rain began to fall.
I may not have racked up big totals or broad diversity this year, but I still managed to track down a larger variety and number of individuals than my previous attempts. Considering that 2017 only featured singletons of 2 different species, that’s not a particularly remarkable achievement. Owls are rarely easy to find, however, and any day with multiple encounters is a mighty fine day in my book. I’ve also got a shot at seeing some new species coming up in a few short weeks, so hopefully these aren’t my last Superb Owls of the month!
Year List Update, February 4 – 121 Species (+ Field Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Barn Owl, Eared Grebe)