On Monday 12/1/03, Gerry Smith and I conducted one of our Winter raptor counts west of Watertown NY -- Pt. Peninsula and surrounding countryside. With a lake effect plume to the south, we enjoyed sunny skies but with a sustained twenty mile an hour wind wafting out of the NW, the car was a safe place to be.
the opposite of a hawk watch | this count is one where the hawkwatchers are on the move and hawks -- more or less -- aren't. These "Winter Counts" are now conducted around Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Groundhog Day in two locations with similar open, flat terrain and of approx. the same square miles.
North Country NY
[above: Moonrise from Gage Road, Addison VT]
The early Roughleg numbers were the best they have been in many years with the significant appearance of young birds. And any day with 130+ raptors is a good one.
[right: Sub-adult gray morph Gyrfalcon]
48 Rough-legged Hawks [37 light morph;10 dark; 1 undetermined]
30 Northern Harriers [5 adult male; 1 adult female; 1sub-adult male; 24 immature]
29 Red-tailed Hawks [17 adult; 11 immature; 1 undetermined]
3 American Kestrels [2 males; 1 female]
1 Cooper's Hawk [adult]
1 Sharp-shinned Hawk [adult]
1 Gyrfalcon [sub-adult, gray morph]
And... 1 Northern Shrike [immature]; 18 Short-eared Owls [17 male, 1 female].
161 Snow Buntings, 105 Bonaparte's Gulls, 32 Wild Turkeys, 5 Common Redpolls, 1 Horned Lark.
Lake Champlain Lake Plain VT
The third time was the charm. Monday, December 8, 2003: A raptor survey of Bridport, Addison, and Panton, mostly west of Rt. 22A -- including Dead Creek -- finally got done. On the way to northern NY there was a forecast for up to a foot of blowing and drifting snow between VT and NY.
Then there was that early December nor'easter in the offing... another no-go. And while there had been a couple of feet of snow, the wind blew the fields mostly bare with serious drifting along the roadsides and wood edge. For the day, the cold and moist start produced the most amazing display of hoar frost I've ever seen.
Compared to northern NY, this was a dull day. Not just for the lack of Gyr, but for the low numbers of Roughlegs and the overall paucity of raptor life.
[left: immature, dark Roughleg]
22 Red-tailed Hawks [15 adults; 4 immatures, 3 undetermined]
11 Rough-legged Hawks [5 light; 5 dark; 1 undetermined]
2 Northern Harriers [1 adult male; 1 immature]
1 American Kestrel [adult male]
And... 1 Northern Shrike, but no Short-eared Owls.
203 Horned Larks, 67 Snow Buntings, 45 Common Redpolls, 14 Wild Turkeys (six feet off the ground).
Some Notes from the Count
While it has been a treat to have so many adult Roughlegs to ogle over the last couple of winters, the dirth of immatures has been indicative of the poor reproductive success of the species for the last two years plus. But it looks like the immatures are back in the picture for the Winter of '03-04, with only 3 adult birds out of fifty-nine Roughlegs for the two counts.
The typical, immature Redtail for this trip -- both in NY and VT -- was an interesting one. But this is atypical for these surveys... as a pale-headed bird with a low blotchy bellyband is likely a hold-over from August dispersal flight. In other words, an HY Red-tailed Hawk that moved North from the Ohio River valley or the Mid-Atlantic states in late Summer, but hasn't been motivated to rebound back, well South of these areas. I'm curious to see what the immie RTs will look like on the Christmas Eve surveys!
[above right:"Typical" immature Redtail of Thanksgiving, this one banded in early November '03 at Dead Creek WMA in Vermont; photo taken by Rod Olsen & friends]
The Role of the Mice
Meadow Voles have their ups and downs, that is to say, they are cyclic [no need to start spraying the fields with St. Johnswort]. And with the rise and fall of their numbers comes a region's ability to hold wintering raptors. A bountiful year for the Roughleg or Harrier may or may not be reflected in the number of birds that linger -- in the Champlain or Ontario lake plain. This Winter the rodents are having a very good year in northern NY and a poor one in Vermont. In addition to the tremendous early NY raptor numbers, you could easily find the occasional crow standing around with a vole in its beak. The table is well-set with abundant food for all. As far as the Redtails and Roughlegs are concerned, the amount of snow on the ground or the occurrence of sub-zero nights is not at the top of their list for staying or going. It is the food.
[above left: Windblown snow from the early December nor'easter gathers in the lee of haybales, Addison VT]
It is always more satisifying to discover your own rarity than to download the directions. Of course any Gyrfalcon is a treat, but when that bird is a surprise, literally the first bird of the day, and sitting at eye-level just over a hundred feet away, well, what can you say. It was easy to see a dull yellow cere and eye-ring on this bird [butter, rather than margarine-colored], making it a likely sub-adult. The blue-gray coloring was incredible! Not wanting to keep the bird to ourselves, Gerry Smith got on the cell and notified every serious birder within a thousand square miles... that entailed four calls. Photography was a little dicey. It was a very windy morning and the closest viewing point to the Gyr's hay bail bunker was pretty backlit, so my best shot [above] ain't great. But the bird was.
The Owl Show
Eighteen Short-eared Owls in view at one time. Watching these floaters in the fading light of day is always a spiritual delight for me. Give me Short-eared Owls over angels any day. Well, here I was in Northern NY, in the company of 18 SeOs at once. Take me now. Along with the owls were eight Northern Harriers -- the day shift -- who shared the same roosting site. There was a wonderful period of intraspecific play amongst the owls. The interspecific behavior [hawk v. owl] was fun to observe as well. Any perching owl was a target for a harrier; a harrier with prey on the ground was swarmed by a half-dozen diving and swirling owls; taunting and displays of celebration were legal everywhere [where NFL here means "Natural Flyers League"]. Sitting in the car with the windows down, I could hear the owls making all manner of soft calls, and I could hear the wings of the harriers, but not the owls as they passed with a few feet of my autoblind. At one point a Short-eared Owl peacefully shared a perch, not a foot away from three Northern Harriers.