Sunday, January 15, 2012

B-r-r-r-ding the Ft. Edward Grasslands

Ten below zero when I got up this morning, with a bit of wind stirring the dangling seeds of the Box Elder tree outside my kitchen window.  And I don't think it got much warmer than ten above all day.  I must be nuts, I thought to myself, as I agreed to meet Sue this afternoon for a birdwatching jaunt around the grasslands east of Ft. Edward in Washington County, an open rolling (and windy!) habitat designated one of New York's Important Birding Areas.  But the thrill of the hunt overcame the dread of the cold, especially since area birders had reported seeing a pair of Short-eared Owls (an endangered species in New York State)  hunting these fields in recent weeks.  So out came the big down coat and the fur-lined hat with flaps that cover my cheeks and chin, and off I drove to meet Sue.

We left my car on the side of a road and rode together in Sue's car, meandering through the hills and meadows of this vast open area looking for hawks until it grew late enough to start looking for owls.  We had hardly started our birding journey when Sue spotted a Rough-legged Hawk soaring over a hedgerow, and I later pointed out a Red-tailed Hawk perching in a tree.  A bit later we saw a hawk with white undersides and black wing-tips flying low over a field, a bird Sue later confirmed was indeed a Northern Harrier.  Important Birding Area, indeed!

As a lowering sun began to cast long shadows across the fields, we made our way to the specific site where the Short-eared Owls have been spotted.  Unlike most other species of owls, which hunt in the dark of night, the Short-eared often leave their roost and begin their evening's hunt before the sun disappears, giving us some small hope that we might actually see them today.

We were not the only ones to share that hope.  We were soon joined by other avid birders, including one couple who had driven to this spot all the way from Amsterdam, NY, several counties away.  But especially exciting to us was the arrival of noted bird photographer Gordon Ellmers,  who set up his scope and camera in the hopes of obtaining some shots of this rare and endangered bird.

Well, it certainly was our lucky day! The fellow from Amsterdam let out a shout -- "There's one!" -- and we all trained our binoculars in the direction he pointed.  Sure enough, a pair of owls came flapping along, close to the ground, and Gordon hurried to get his shots while the birds remained within range and the daylight lasted.  Here's a shot that Gordon generously shared with us and permitted me to publish.  I did not even attempt to photograph the owls with my little pocket camera with its limited zoom.  Plus, I did not want to put down my binoculars, lest I miss a moment of watching these elusive birds.

 Photo by Gordon Ellmers, used with permission.

My readers can visit our regional Audubon site to see more truly spectacular and instructive photos by Gordon Ellmers of these beautiful owls, as well as of two of the hawks Sue and I saw today, the Rough-legged and the Northern Harrier.  Also, be sure to visit Sue's blog Water-lily to read her account and see her wonderful photos of today's adventure.

Our faces numb and our fingers nearly frozen, Sue and I agreed it was time to head home to hot suppers, and so we went our separate ways, she to Queensbury and I to Saratoga.  I did take a little detour to the tiny river village of Ft. Miller, stopping to take in the beauty of sunset on the Hudson.  There were still areas of open water along this stretch, and flocks of geese came circling in from many directions, peppering the deep-blue sky with their darkened profiles.

Gordon Ellmers had told us that he had seen many hundreds of Snow Geese on the river at Ft. Miller today, but I could not tell what species of goose these were, dark shapes against the water and sky and filling the air with their haunting cries.   I hope this huge flock was able to find an area of open water to spend the night.


Jens said...

Geese against the sky---very nice!

June said...

What a day you had!

Elizabeth said...

How exciting! That owl is quite the reward for braving the cold. :)

Caroline said...

Interesting that the grasslands there in NY offer the same hawks and owls that I saw on the open grasslands of the Dakota prairie when we drove east from the Black Hills to MN over Christmas.
One difference is that there are lots of short-eared owls and we saw a life Snowy owl on Christmas Eve day as well.
Sometimes freezing your fanny and fingers has its rewards, doesn't it!

threecollie said...

wow, congratulations on the owls and a huge wow on that photo of geese. I thought we had been seeing a lot, but not that many! Great shots as always.

Ellen Rathbone said...

What a great day! And here we are back in the 40s and it is pouring rain!

I visited the link to Gorden's photos - fantastic!

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Thanks for your comments, dear readers. It pleases me so, to know you participate in the pleasure of my nature adventures.

Anonymous said...

I live on that road with the dead end sign and I hate that you guys always block the road and it is just a bird get over it