NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 25, 2014

Weather causes a challenge for birders

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — Last Saturday’s Eagles and Owls afternoon bird walk was a challenge. For a day that called for scattered showers, or scattered snow showers, the weather took a turn for the worse.

The morning was steady rain, but I decided not to cancel in the hope that the heavier precipitation would pass. But an hour before our 1 p.m. start time, the rain turned to snow — big heavy flakes of snow — making visibility difficult. Ten people showed up, some coming from Boston and North Andover, so we went birding despite the weather. After all, it was a birthday for three of the participants, including yours truly! In addition to the snow, fog had set in and visibility was down to about a half mile. So instead of going up river for eagles first, I decided to head to Plum Island to look for snowy owls which might be in closer viewing. We got lucky quickly.

As we headed down the Plum Island Turnpike, we noticed cars parked along the road near the infamous “pink house.” Sure enough, a snowy owl sat perched on the roof. As close as it was, it was still a challenge to keep binoculars dry as big, wet snowflakes blew into our lenses. I did take out the scope and everyone had awesome, full-frame views of the very white adult bird. This was a life bird for many of the participants. As we proceeded down the road toward the island, we found a second owl perched atop a haystack in the marsh. This one was a much darker bird with bright, white face -- a young snowy owl. It seemed right at home in the cold and blowing snow.

As we watched the owl through our binoculars, it took off and flew directly at us. We had awesome views as it passed over the last car in line. We continued on down Plum Island as the weather continued to get worse. Visibility was down to a quarter mile so we couldn’t see the other 10 snowy owls that were probably somewhere out in the marsh or dunes. We did see a harrier pass close to the road, but we had little else to show for our journey. I decided to give into the elements and we turned around and headed for the Merrimack River to try to salvage an eagle for the group.

As we traveled back up the island, the fog had begun to lift to the point where we could see the mainland as we passed through the refuge gate. I was getting hopeful that eagles might be in our future. But as we headed into town on our way to Cashman Park, the fog became thick once more. When we arrived at the park, we couldn’t see halfway across the river! An eagle would have to be floating on a chunk of ice less than 50 yards out if were to have any chance of seeing it. An unlikely scenario.

We called it a day and comforted ourselves with warming memories of great looks at two beautiful snowy owls.

Though these arctic visitors are accustomed to the snow and cold, many of our local birds need our help during these frigid days that are still ahead. Please be sure to keep your feeders full. Serve high energy seed, such as black-oil sunflower. If we have more snow and you can’t get to your feeders, throw some seed on the deck or ice-covered ground and birds will flock to it. Keep suet feeders full as well, another high energy source for many birds. Crush up some suet in a tray feeder for bluebirds and Carolina wrens. If you have a heated bird bath, be sure to keep fresh water available as well. If you can, check any bird house that you have up and be sure they are clean. Add a bit of straw for insulation if you can find it. Birds will huddle together in a nesting box to stay warm, especially at night. Just these small things that you do might help some birds survive this harsh weather.

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.