The Grudge Bird



Sometimes it just becomes personal.  I have looked for a bird a number of times, even one described by others as a “sure thing” and could not find it.  I call them "grudge birds".  I have a grudge and maybe it is mutual. 


I missed the Short-eared Owl many times, arriving sometimes within five minutes of someone else having seen it.  In February 2005, while on a Mid-Atlantic winter trip, a friend arranged to meet me at the Port Mahon marshes on the Delaware Shore.  Here the owl was supposed to be one of those sure things.


That morning, I birded the Cape May area and took the ferry across to Ocean City and the Delaware Shore.  It was a dark and stormy day…thirty-five degrees and a 35-knot Northeast wind off the Atlantic…featuring sideways driven rain that included a smidgen of sleet. I was only mildly successful in scanning inlets with my scope by hiding behind bridge abutments.  It was that bad.


I was to meet my host in late afternoon; however, the weather was so bad, I called him at his office and called off the trip.  Since I already had a hotel reservation for Dover, I tried for the owl anyway. Fortunately, just after dark, the rain stopped and conditions improved enough to give me hope. 


I birded for close to two hours with no luck.  There were numerous Northern Harriers working the fields plus an American Bittern flyover.  The owls could have showed like those birds and, when they did not, I took it personally.  Enough is enough!  I officially placed the owl on my grudge bird list.


Fast forwarding past a few more failed attempts, I finally scored in mid-February 2006 at Alligator River NWR.  A ranger told me a Short-eared Owl had been seen the previous afternoon just south of the helipad so I staked out that area. 


As the sun set, the high wind died down leaving no sound except for birds.  I could hear the ducks and geese twittering on my right, the bubbling conversations of swans on my left, and occasionally the silence was broken by a mallard squawking to the high heaven. 


With just a faint rosy smudge remaining of the sunset, I heard the first owl.  The unmistakable, multi-note screech was just in front of me.  He sounded off four times and I still could not see him. 


Finally, I saw flashes of two owls.  Not a good look.  I was hiding in the shadows of my SUV so I took a few steps closer to the canal to try to get a better look.


Suddenly, a blood-curdling scream pierced the silence – an unearthly sound!  I had interrupted an owl’s dinner, an owl I never saw.  As I left, I looked up into the crisp, cloudless night to see Orion and a billion of his buddies winking at me – or were they grinning over how high I can jump when startled?


I returned the following morning to try to photograph the owls.  I stood just off the road and, in a few minutes, the first owl sounded off.  I heard it several times before it was light enough for me to see the silhouettes of two owls. 


As it grew lighter, I counted four owls flying in small circles in a fashion that suggested cooperative hunting – barking to each other with a one-note call.  Another birder described their flight as “flappity…like a big moth”.  I definitely agree!


Just as the light was improving enough to photograph the birds, a car drove up and, with the engine still running, the passenger asked if I could tell them where the owls were being seen.  I told them they had arrived and to turn the engine off and get out. 


Unfortunately, the disturbed owls’ circles continued to shift to the west and then they were gone.  I bit my tongue and did not tell the other birders what I thought of missing the owl picture due to their arrival.


Like many of you, I have noted that when I finally see a grudge bird, getting the next one is much easier.  Like priming the pump!


About a month later, on a business trip to Appleton, Wisconsin, I tried for Short-eared Owls at a location recommended by local birders - the observation deck at Van Patten Road in the Mack Wildlife Area.Click to enlarge this smudge of a Short-eared Owl 


In the fifteen minutes just after sunset, I saw six owls.  I watched the first three plow into the snow.  There must be a good supply of voles close to the deck! 


I was able to take only one picture before my auto focus and image stabilization shut down due to low light.  It is just a smudge; however, you can see the owl’s head as it sat in the snow facing me.  Regardless of quality, I am very proud of that picture!


In late May, I was blessed with another Short-eared Owl experience.  On the Carolina Bird Club western trip, while driving through Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming, one of my riders spotted an owl flying parallel us.  It was quickly joined by its mate and we watched as they hunted.  One even perched for a while on a fence post.  When they noticed we had stopped for photos, the owls slipped away as quickly as they appeared, leaving me again without a picture.


No problem! At least the grudge is gone!  


John B. Ennis ă 2006