On the day before Christmas, for more years than we can remember, Gerry Smith and I have ventured out onto the open Ontario Lake plain west of Watertown NY for a day of raptor counting. I'll begin with the particulars of the count and present a brief history of the area at the very end. First the count:
* Short-eared Owl
Hawk Food Highlights
478 Snow Buntings, 125 Tundra Swans, 51 Horned Larks, 17 Gray Partridge, 6 Common Redpolls, a Hoary Redpoll, 2 Ring-necked Pheasants, 1 Pileated Woodpecker. Now, why mention pheasants? In the North Country, a live RnP in winter is news. On the other hand, GP are survivors, and continue to be our favorite introduced spp. of all time.
This was a respectable day for Roughlegs from Pt.Peninsula and surrounding environs. In all big years, the numbers will continue their increase over the next few weeks [weather in the North Country and elsewhere plays a part]. It could yet be a great year. Over 25+ years of study, the late November and Christmas Eve numbers have never been the season high but can be used as a gauge for anticipating good and great years. There were 17 or so birds on the Pt. around Thanksgiving and now 39 on the eve of Christmas... those are hopeful numbers. Vole numbers were judged to be very high and that's a key ingredient too. The voles cycle is three to five years between peaks and that captures the attention of raptors-on-the-move [and then the capturing turns from metaphor to reality].
Pt.Peninsula is in fact a peninsula of nearly abandoned farmscape surrounded by Lake Ontario. It accounted for just over 50% of the Roughlegs on this year's Xmas Eve Day Count. The rest of the birds, minus a couple, were concentrated in a new area nearby under more active agriculture; this discovered by Gerry.
Of the ages and phases we could determine, all but one RL were immature. We had 50 light morph birds and 13 dark morphs for the day.
On Pt.Peninsula, when the RL numbers are high, the RT's are absent or found on the periphery [w/i view of the water]. Over 25 years of survey, RT numbers aren't as volatile as the Roughlegs. This year, we had only 11 adult tails and 25 young birds. On Pt.Peninsula, the young RT's out numbered the adults 12 to 1. We also like looking at eastern RT plumages... we've learned this from the young bucks: Frank Nicoletti and Jerry Ligouri. See, you can teach a couple of old dogs new tricks. Everybody's got to have a hobby. This work is pretty much unpublished at this time.
The AK's were adult males; that's what you'd expected at this cline. The presence of Harriers is directly related to the depth of snow cover. It's been pretty mild so far: 5 immies and 2 adult males, for the day. And we had an immature Gos cruise by with a full crop.
The late show of a day of raptor watching is owls. First, it has been a spotty year in northern NY for Snowy Owls. There's been a couple around but we didn't located one. As sunset arrived, so did the Short-eared Owls. We had four in the new area and two in a traditional haunt. Pt.Salubrious [break out your dictionaries] has had SeO's for thirty years... at least. The regulars have not been noted by the local birders for some time but we had two again in the usual location.
When I was living and birding in the North Country and first reported 75 Roughlegs in one day from Pt.Peninsula it was published in the Kingbird [pub. of NYS bird clubs] but rejected out of hand for a supplement to Bull's Birds of NYS [a big book]: just not a realistic concentration; must be counting the same birds more than once.
Gerry Smith earned a living -- more or less -- for something like twenty years as the hawk watcher at Derby Hill on Lake Ontario. As I left the North Country, Gerry began birding the area, especially for hawks. First he drove up from Derby Hill, then his work for The Nature Conservancy brought him up there, and finally he moved there!
His careful survey of the Roughlegs on Pt.Peninsula showed big years are defined by 200 RL's as a one day count! His journal article on this area's wintering raptors has lead to the recent designation of Pt.Peninsula as a important birding area worthy of protection and preservation. The new area for raptors Gerry has discovered falls under a regional planning agency and we discussed protection needs sitting within this area as the sun set and the Roughlegs streamed over the treeline moving toward their common roost site.
And on February 1st, Gerry and I made a second winter trip to Pt. Peninsula during the 97-98 winter.