Plum Island hosts its share of owls. Great horned owls nest on the island each year. They usually pick a secluded area of pines, but a couple of times they have chosen a more public viewing area for their nest, including one along the Pines Trail and another in the pines near the Bill Forward Blind in past years.
Great horned owls can sometimes be heard, and occasionally seen, at dusk from along the refuge road. During the winter, snowy owls and short-eared owls can often be seen hunting the marshes and dunes on the island. In years when their northern food supplies dwindle, we are blessed with many of these owls putting on a show for those who care to watch.
More uncommon are the saw-whet, long-eared and barred owls that stop at the island to roost during spring or fall migration, or while wandering in search of food during the winter. I have seen saw-whet owls several times on the island, roosting in a pine, cedar, or deciduous tree. I have encountered long-eared owls, the more uncommon of the owls, at least once or twice, including once at the north end of the island. I received a call from a resident that had a roosting long-eared owl staring at them while they filled their bird feeder!
Also rather uncommon for the island is the barred owl, usually a fan of wet deciduous woodlands. I have seen barred owls at Hellcat a couple of times, but the first time I saw one on the island was back when I lived on Plum. I received a call from my next-door neighbor, Ed, who told me that there was a barred owl sitting in the wooded hollow behind the house. Needless to say I rushed home to see it!
Doug Chickering of Groveland can attest to the rarity of finding certain owls on Plum Island. He shares with us the thrill of finally seeing a barred owl there:
“Yesterday, Sept. 28, as Lois Cooper and I were driving off Plum Island, we passed a car pulled over and stopped on the other side of the road, halfway through the S curves. We approached slowly and as we passed the car, I could see the lens of a camera poking out of the driver’s side window; pointing high and to our right. I didn’t recognize the car; and because of the camera, I didn’t get a look at the driver. I hesitated a second and then, almost on impulse, drove on.
“Lois and I had thoroughly checked the roadside at the S curves when we had come in and Plum Island was replete with photographers, many of whom were taking pictures of non-avian subjects. It turned out to be a bad decision. Imagine my surprise and chagrin when I read Suzanne Sullivan’s post where she tells of finding a barred owl in the S curves on Plum Island and as she shot several pictures of the bird, at least five cars rode by completely unaware as to what was near them. Color me clueless as I was one of those cars.
“So this morning, Lois and I decided to try the island again. Closing the barn door after the horse was gone, as it were. This would turn out to be a good decision. It was a pretty active day with a few sparrows jumping up from the roadside; mostly song sparrows but also a few white-throats. Also, we found a brown creeper in the S curves; a kingfisher and chipping sparrows at the wardens.
“When we got to Hellcat and chatted with Suzanne, as well as Kirk Elwell and Nancy Landry, we were told that there was some sporadic activity in the Hellcat trails, and among the more prosaic warblers they had seen a juvenile mourning warbler. I took some time to see if I could hunt down the mourning warbler, to no avail, and Lois and I decided to head off for some lunch.
“I hadn’t driven past the crosswalk at Ralph Goodno woods when my cellphone rang. A cellphone ringing on Plum Island is usually good news. It was Nancy. “Dougie, I’ve got the barred owl here in Hellcat.”
“Sure enough; following her instructions, Lois and I joined a small cluster of people on the boardwalk near Ralph Goodno woods in an area generally known as “the swale.” Up in a large maple about 10 yards off the boardwalk there sat a barred owl, his back to us, looking around casually. It was occasionally bothered by a few pesky songbirds that flickered around it chattering and scolding, but the owl seemed generally unconcerned. I suppose as an old forest hand, this owl was used to such treatment.
“Will I ever learn? I had done this before; that is, driven away from a life bird through inattention and carelessness and have eventually managed to recover and find the bird later. It happened again. Being a Plum Island life bird, this would have been a particularly disappointing miss. But I got my Plum Island lifer number 331, with a little help from my friends. Thanks, Nancy. Much obliged. Also noteworthy is that this bird has been around for a while; there was a report of barred owl in the Hellcat area last weekend.”
That barred owl was still hanging out at Hellcat this past week, at least as late as Thursday.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.