In recounting my Rochester Snowy Owl encounter last week, I mentioned my new birding buddy, Laura Kammermeier. Bill of the Birds made our mutual acquaintance but in spite of our efforts, we hadn’t actually found the opportunity to go birding together. Fortunately, we found time to make a run at the waves of White-winged Crossbills pouring past Lake Ontario. Laura, Seth, and I hit Webster Park, heretofore unvisited by any of us, in hopes of flagging down a flock or two.
My, but it was cold that morning! Even worse, it was slow. Bird biodiversity was lower than the mercury, lower than my 401K even. Sure, we had Black-capped Chickadees and American Crows and Northern Cardinals, but those species are a given. Red-breasted Nuthatches sallied back and forth while American Robins massed in bare trees and bushes. The finches, however, were not flying.
Our icy but optimistic party ran into those stalwarts of Rochester birding, Bob and Sue Spahn. They confirmed our perception of relative scarcity but also that we occupied as good a spot as any to intersect the flight path of these crossbills. As a result, we went back to stake out a stand of white spruce, a white-wing favorite, with good sightlines. Lo and behold, not much later a fast flock did zip overhead, whispering in the way we learned that White-winged Crossbills do. These were hardly optimal looks but, just as you can’t unring a bell, you cannot unsee a bird. Thus, we each logged, with little complaint, our life Loxia leucoptera.
Now a new lifer is usually enough to make a morning of birding memorable. Heck, just finally birding with Laura was so much fun that we were looking forward to more of the same. But as we were headed off the West Trail, we enjoyed the kind of incident that I’ve always thought only good birders experienced. We had just noted an odd absence of Blue Jays when one, then two, then suddenly an entire scold of jays congregated in our midst. And scolding is what they were doing as they focused their obstreperous exertions towards a particular grove of white pines. Seth and I both commented that this seemed classic mobbing behavior and further that the object of their aggression was probably an owl. We followed these pithy ornithological insights by opining that, even if we were right, we’d probably never find the owl anyway so the point was moot. Then we walked on.
But, as we passed the pines, I do declare we were possessed, yea verily, by the spirit of a true birder. Perhaps it was that Great Audubon’s Ghost Corey prays to when seeking owls. Whatever our inspiration, we decided that we may as well pursue this hunch to the hilt. Seth and I ducked into different parts of the pines to scout the disturbance while Laura stayed back to see if anything flushed. Within one minute, we were looking at an amazing Long-eared Owl!
This character kept it cool under that dense coniferous ceiling, unfazed by the jays but uncharacteristically curious about us. Staring each one of us down in turn, the owl was more active than I’ve seen long-ears during the day but certainly held its ground. We each snapped some quick pics and backed out of the grove as quietly as we could. Life crossbills are nice — this owl was also new for two-thirds of our fortunate group — but nothing else that morning could compare to kneeling on that fragrant carpet of needles taking in the best views a body could want of an alert Asio otus. Awesome!
For the record, Laura has been involved in two separate owl sightings for me in just a single week. I suspect my rotten owl luck may be changing…