Sunday, February 12, 2017

Great Gray Owls in New York ... Finally!

One of My Most Wanted State Birds Finally Shows Up ....

Saturday, February 11 - Massena, New York

There are two Robert Moses State Parks in New York.  One is an hour os from my house on Long Island, the other is 7 hours from Manhattan (and 9 hours from East Hampton).  So for me to go to the latter one, means there is a seriously good bird there.

For the past week or so there have been rumors of Great Gray Owls in the very North of New York State.  That in and of itself if not unusual; most years there are rumors of Great Gray Owls but they almost never seem to turn into real birds.  There were birds in the 70s and 90s and a bird in 2013 (that for some reason I didn't chase, probably burned out after my big year) but I haven't really had an opportunity to see this species in New York. This year though, the omens were good with a massive invasion of owls into neighboring Quebec, a handful of New York sightings reported to local newspapers, and then, the moment I'd been waiting 20 years for .... a specific Great Gray Owl record from New York, with detailed location, and photos, when  I was available and interested in chasing it!  Game on!

So at 5am on Saturday I was on my way North, heading for that other Robert Moses State Park, this one near Massena on the St. Lawrence River, North of the Adirondack Mountains at the very Northern tip of New York State.  It took me almost 7 hours to get there, and I pointedly avoided checking the list serve emails on the way up (it's not like I was going to turn back).   As I pulled into the park though I allowed myself a peak at the email and the news was good ... 2 GREAT GRAY OWLS were being seen along one of the roads in the park.  Not ten minutes later I pulled up to a bunch of parked cars and a group of (albeit freezing cold) birders watching the owls.  Oh, why can't they all be this easy - after my horrible year of long-distance dips in 2016 - this was an amazing sight.

There were two owls in view and they pretty much did everything you want owls to do.  They did some perch hunting, flew around a bit, changed perches a lot and came close to the road, and one even did some awesome hovering thing over the (hopefully) vole-infested grass.  Quite a show and a very, very cool to add to my state list (NYS #393).

There weren't really all that many other birds present, a few chickadees, crows, ravens, etc.  and a single Rough-legged Hawk.  I did a quick detour to look for a previously reported Barred Owl (no luck) but bumped into a birder who gave me directions to a NORTHERN SHRIKE which was definitely another great add for the state year list.

Northern Shrike - another backlit photo, sorry ...
So onward.  Super happy with my owls, I headed further North with a  plan to add a few more.  I crossed the US-Canadian border near Cornwall Ontario and headed NorthEast toward Montreal, stopping at a small suburban preserve and adding Great Gray Owl to my Quebec list too (joining previous sightings in Ontario and Minnesota).  Nice day ... but cold ... and I had dinner plans in Montreal.  Plans at perhaps my favorite restaurant in North America ... Joe Beef.

Two very old school dishes at Joe Beef - Flanc de Cerf, Dauphin et Foie Gras
and Gateau Marjelain 

Sunday, February 12 - Adirondacks, New York

Up shocking early after Saturday night's excesses and off to the Adirondacks.  I knew I didn't have much time given a forecast snow storm but figured I'd at least have the morning to bird.  The day started really well when, not long after dawn I crossed the U.S. border and had a Barred Owl hunting by the side of the road somewhere in Clinton County.  So on to the Adirondacks to see if I could clean up the available boreal specialties in a single morning.  Well I can dream can't I?

A quick stop at Oregon Plains Road added a BOREAL CHICKADEE  among the more common locals.  Then on to Tupper Lake where I added EVENING GROSBEAK and to Sabatis Bog which gave me Ruffed Grouse and GRAY JAY.  While I was in Brazil a few weeks ago a ROSS'S GULL showed up at Tupper Lake - it arrived just after I left ... and left just before I got back, allowing every serious birder in NY to see it except me (and Corey Finger who was apparently in Austria).  That's a bird I really want to see in New York, in fact I've never seen one in North America.  So driving through Tupper Lake had a certain bitter-sweet element to it, and I did scan the lake, just in case .... but no dream gull.
Birding cars aren't meant to be neat and clean ....
The snow also started to come down hard at that point though and I reluctantly decided to start heading South.  That unfortunately took me into the storm and the next 7 hours were a pretty stressful drive through heavy snow (almost a white-out blizzard at some points), bad roads, traffic jams, car accidents, and other wintery travel fun.  There was a brief highlight when I saw two BOHEMIAN WAXINGS in Indian Pond, but otherwise the ride South to the City was long and stressful.

Not a bad haul of birds though.  A New York State bird, 9 NYS year birds, and a smattering of new county birds on both sides of the border.  By no means did I do a boreal clean-up though - couldn't find a Black-backed Woodpecker, and came up short on Winter Finches other than the grosbeak.  Also, when I got back to New York, I found out that Joan Collins had had two male (!) Pine Grosbeaks sitting out on the road at Sabatis Bog just after I left.   So while I got a lot of stuff on my quick swing through the Adirondacks, I clearly would have seen a lot more had I birded it properly.  Still, always happy to have a reason to go back to the Adirondacks (or Montreal for that matter) so I'm sure I'll find a time to head back up there again.

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