Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Snowy, Boreal and Northern Hawk Owls in Northern Maine

Northern owls have been making a great showing in Aroostook county this season. Most everyone has heard the populations of the birds' normal food supplies in the north (lemmings, voles and other small rodents) are apparently in a cyclic low and these predators are roaming south to avoid starvation. Luckily for the owls (and local birders) the rodent populations are doing very well in northern Maine and lots of these owls are showing up.

In their high latitude habitats, some of these birds experience extra long day lengths and are comfortable being out and about in the daylight... and so they are a bit more detectable than our more common locally breeding species which are active in the dark.

Up until last week, Snowy Owls were the story. At least eight have been seen in the central Aroostook area and there are plenty of second-hand accounts and rumors of more in other northern Maine locales. The first of these showed up back in October and new Snowys continue to be found. Recently new birds were discovered by Paul Cyr in Easton and Presque Isle. Above is one of Pauls photos of the Easton owl.

On the Presque Isle Christmas Bird Count last Saturday, Linda Alverson and George McPherson glimpsed a Snowy Owl flying over an unharvested corn field in Washburn. The bird was quick to disappear down into the corn (to catch a rodent attracted by the grain no doubt).

Early last week, the Reynolds family in New Sweden discovered a small owl in their yard as they dug out from the latest blizzard.

They tentatively narrowed the identity of the owl down to either Saw-whet or Boreal Owl (very similar species). The Reynolds were able to get some great pictures and circulated them around and quickly confirmed the bird's ID as a Boreal.

Here's a great shot of the little owl taken by Wanda Reynolds:

A close look revealed a few flecks of blood in the snow and a rodent tail protruding from under the little owl!

The Boreal is one of the most rarely detected species of the northern owls in this neck of the woods. They prefer denser cover and usually do their hunting in night.

Chelsea Reynolds offered this account of the discovery:

"This was the first time we saw this type of owl at our house. My father noticed the owl around 8am on Tuesday. The owl was in the same spot for approximately five hours. It seemed alert and knew we were around but never moved from the spot. My father was snowblowing the driveway and had the tractor on next to him and it didn't seem to phase the owl (that's when he noticed it). Originally he thought it was a Barred Owl but then suggested it might be a Saw-Whet Owl. My mom suggested possibly a Boreal Owl. My parents have observed other types of owls over the years but never one as petite and tame as this one. Another item to point out - my father feeds all types of birds in a tree approximately 10 feet from where the picture was taken."

Unfortunately the bird has not been seen again since the 23rd.

As if the Boreal Owl wasn't enough, Wanda Reynolds went on to discover a Northern Hawk Owl just a couple of miles from their house a few days later. Another rare species of owl in Maine, these birds are much more active during the daylight and not shy about perching out in the open so they are seen a bit more frequently than the Boreal Owl. As is the case with the Snowy and Boreal Owls, the Northern Hawk Owl rarely wanders this far south unless there is a shortage of food in the north.

This owl has been staying around the brushy field where it was first discovered near the intersection of the West Road and Route 161 in Stockholm (DeLorme Atlas Map 68). Paul Cyr visited the field at sun up today and was able to get this great shot of the bird.

Presque Isle ME Christmas Bird Count 2008

The 2008 Presque Isle Christmas Bird Count was held Saturday 27 December despite the usual nasty weather. 13 field observers covered the region despite the intermittently falling snow and cold temperatures. There was about 1 foot of snow on the ground and only the fastest water was not frozen.

The PI CBC is the northern-most count in the eastern US and this was the 51st time the count has been run.

35 species were found during the day, which was right on the 10 year average for this count. Highlights included some count-firsts: the overdue Sharp-shinned Hawk and an unexpected Merlin. Sharp-shins have shown up as Count Week species in the past, but until Saturday, it was not found during an actual count day. We also found our second-ever Cooper's Hawk which is not unexpected considering this species continued expansion in the region.

Notable high counts were record numbers of Bald Eagles, Blue Jays and Bohemian Waxwings. Even with some conservative editing to avoid duplicate observations of the same individuals, the final tally of 11 eagles shattered the previous high of 3. All sightings were 4th year or mature birds. Even through the heavy snowfall, Paul Cyr was able to get a shot of this eagle eyeing the ducks in the Presque Isle waste water treatment plant.

Other noteworthy finds on the count were Common Merganser, Snowy Owl, Song Sparrow and Common Grackle. Among the missing were White-breasted Nuthatch, Purple Finch and any gull species. A Canada Goose seen during the count week was not found during the count.

All observers commented that generally the woods and fields were very quiet and most sightings were made around feeders and in town locations. The cone crop this year is spotty at best and the last of the fruit is being gobbled up by the waxwings.

In addition to the recent and widespread invasion of Bohemian Waxwings, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks both made good showings. Four Northern Shrikes made for the second highest count ever.

Thanks to the field observers, feeder watchers and the Griffiths for hosting the post-count potluck and tally!

Here's the (unofficial) numbers:

Canada Goose
Am. Black Duck
Mallard x Am. Black Duck hyb
Common Merganser
Ruffed Grouse
Bald Eagle
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Mourning Dove
Rock Pigeon
Snowy Owl
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
Common Raven
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Bohemian Waxwing
European Starling
Northern Cardinal
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Snow Bunting
Common Grackle
Pine Grosbeak
Pine Siskin
Common Redpoll
American Goldfinch
White-winged Crossbill
Evening Grosbeak
House Sparrow

total species
total individuals