Trumansburg is at the northern edge of Tompkins County and the next county up, Seneca County, is full of active and inactive agricultural land, interspersed with woodlots and dotted with villages and hamlets. During the winter the county roads (most of them still unpaved) are excellent for trolling for open country birds like northern pipits and snow buntings. These are birds that generally don’t come to feeders and are only in this area during the winter. More dramatic are the rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls and snowy owls, all of which are less common than the pipits and buntings, but a bit more heart-stopping when you spot them.
A fellow bed and breakfast owner, Michele Manella of Hayward House up in Ovid, has become an avid birdwatcher since moving to the Finger Lakes from Pittsburgh. She is part of a network of birders who let each other know when unusual species have been spotted. Several weeks ago she let us know that a snowy owl and several short-eared owls had been hanging around the intersection of Center Road and County Road 129 in Ovid, and she encouraged us to go have a look. The best time was around dusk, which was happening around 7 p.m. in early March.
We tried to make up there one night a couple of weeks ago and arrived at about 7:20 p.m. when it was already too dark to identify anything out in the field. Snowy owls, because they are from the tree-less tundra, will often sit on the ground in the middle of a field for hours. It is often difficult to tell the apart from patches of snow or wind-blown plastic bags. The short-eared owls like to sit on the rolls of hay out in the fields, but they tend to like the lee side rather than sitting right on top, where it would easier to see them …
Then, earlier this week Michele gave us a call. Someone had spotted the snowy owls after no one had seen it for several days. The network of birdwatchers maintains a phone tree and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology posts a regularly updated list of local notable sightings. We picked up Michele at her place and drove up Rt. 96, and took a left onto Center Road and began scanning the fields on either side of the road. The first thing we spotted (Michele spotted) was a male northern harrier. These hawks fly in a distinct manner, teetering on narrow upswept wings, swooping low and then rearing up sporadically when they appear to have spotted something down below. The males have blue-gray backs and black wing tips. The female–whom we saw shortly thereafter–is larger and brown instead of blue-gray. Both have a distinctive white crescent at the base of their tails.
We encountered two dedicated birders who were doing owl surveys for Cayuga Birds (I think). It was a cold and windy evening, but very clear with good low light. Michele (again) found the snowy owl crouching out of the wind in a hedgerow. We could see only its head sticking up out of the high grass. Deirdre set off up a lane paralleling the hedgerow to see if she could flush the owl into the open. She got within about 50 feet of him when he popped up and flew about 30 yards out into the field and set down in full view. The males are whiter, while the females tend to be streaked with brown. This was definitely a male.
One of the owl surveyors predicted that he would sit in the middle of the field for a while and then, when it started to get dark, fly up into a tree at the end of the hedgerow. (In the end, that is exactly what he did.)
We turned our attention to the north side of the road where a bird was singing from one of the cylindrical hay bales. I thought it was a red winged blackbird because I’d seen them around for a few weeks now. But he turned toward us and the setting sun and his yellow breast lit up: a meadowlark. He was back up north a little early, but he was definitely back and singing with enthusiasm.
The harrier were still about, but we hadn’t seen the short-eared owls yet. Evidently they represent a sort of changing of the guard, with the harriers ending their hunting just about the time the short-eared owls start their evening shift. After about a half hour of waiting without seeing any short-eared owls we prepared to go. Of course, just as we were about to get in the car one sailed into view, followed shortly by another. They swooped in to have a look at the snowy owl (who by now was in the tree) and then disappeared over a hill, apparently to hunt over a recently plowed field. We’d seen dozen of gulls flying over it earlier in the evening. They were gone now and had left the field to the owls.