My January "Eagles & Owls" walk was memorable for the fact that we experienced true New England winter cold. We did see bald eagles and a couple of snowy owls, but we earned those sightings. I can still feel the 30 mph wind blasting my face as I stood atop the Hellcat Dike in 20-degree weather, looking teary-eyed through my scope at a hunkered-down snowy owl .
This past Sunday's "Eagles & Owls" trip was a pleasant contrast to that memory. The milder weather that we have experienced so often this winter was upon us, and the turnout for this afternoon's trip was double last month's attendance. The cars wouldn't fit in our parking lot, as some 40 people showed up. We carpooled down to 11 cars and headed to Deer Island to view eagles.
We were a bit late, however, and after about 15 minutes of watching only ducks and cormorants, we headed down river. From the Newburyport Boat Basin, we were able to scope an adult bald eagle perched on Eagle Island. It was sitting on the side we couldn't see from Deer Island. It was a long view, but clear enough to satisfy most. We also saw a first- or second-year eagle closer, flying over Carr Island, and it eventually headed farther up river.
We also had good views of a harrier hunting the marsh on the Salisbury side and red-tailed hawks circling above. The common goldeneye and common mergansers in the river were also a treat. A few of the male goldeneye were throwing their heads back as part of their courtship display.
We then headed to Plum Island, and that is when the fun really began.
We were in line at the refuge gate when we noticed a small group of birders at the boat ramp, with binoculars and scopes all pointed in the same direction. At the gate house, we were told that the island was crowded, like a summer's day. We later found out that it was not only the nice weather bringing out the crowds, but also an article on Plum Island's snowy owls in The Boston Globe that drew carloads in from afar.
We pulled into Lot 1 and walked out to the boat ramp, where we were rewarded with a snowy owl perched atop a log farther out in the marsh. This bird had some darker flecking on the body, indicating a young bird. The warm air caused much heat shimmer through the scope, but this sighting pleased all. Still, it only got better from there.
As we continued down the island, I saw another white object out on the marsh just after Lot 2. We pulled the cars over and binocular views revealed it to be another snowy owl. We set up the scopes and had a somewhat closer view than the last bird. This bird was a pure white adult, a nice contrast to the previous bird.
We continued on, and though the Warden's Maintenance Area Lot was full, we could see another group out in that area looking south. We presumed they must have been looking at another snowy owl, possibly along the dike, but there was no room for our 11 cars. We checked the dike as we drove toward Hellcat, but if there was a snowy there, we couldn't see it from the road.
Though the large Hellcat Trail Lot was more than half full, there were enough available parking spaces, so we stopped and walked up to the dike. We searched the marsh and dike area, and Margo spotted another young snowy owl, far up the north dike, almost hidden by the tall phragmites in the North Pool. A visitor mentioned that this bird was more closely visible from the Maintenance Area, but the limited parking there was not an option for us. So, we enjoyed our third snowy from afar.
We decided to continue down the island, and just as we passed Lot 5, there was yet another snowy owl out on the marsh. This was the closest one yet! It was less than a hundred yards away, sitting near the edge of the river. It was so close that several participants were taking photos, some with just the zoom on their point-and-shoot cameras. I showed a few people how to digiscope by holding their camera up to the lens of my scope. They were thrilled at their amazingly good shots!
As everyone absorbed the experience of seeing this magnificent raptor, I continued birding by scanning across the marsh. I did come upon an immature bald eagle flying in front of Grape Island, but it was hard to tear people away from the owl! I then spotted another snowy owl perched atop the pole next to the osprey platform behind the Pines Trail. This one was far enough away that it required a scope to confirm. Still, this was No. 5 snowy owl for the day, making this a very remarkable trip!
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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.