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Coming to roost: chronicle of a northern visitor.

Shortly before 8 AM on Friday, Jan. 24, 2003 ...

Richard Guthrie of New Baltimore posted a message on the Hudson-Mohawk birdline online message board: "Subject: northern hawk owl. I just received word of a hawk owl in Montgomery County. Two experienced birders called to let me know that they found a hawk owl last week. It was still at that location yesterday ... " The post provided directions to a white farmhouse in the Town of Root. Ten minutes later, I was driving east on US 20 toward Corbin Hill Road armed with binoculars, a spotting scope and a digital camera.

Tough Search

Winter came early to the Mohawk Valley last year and stayed without interruption. There was some snow on the ground when the Dec. 25 snowstorm brought thirty inches to the region. A second storm ten days later dropped thirty more inches in the area. Wind and sub-zero temperatures followed. As I drove slowly north along Corbin Hill, a northwesterly wind blew and drifted snow across the road. Under a crisp, blue, winter sky I searched the area for more than two hours. The hawk owl could not be found--by me nor the handful of other birders drawn to the area by the Hudson-Mohawk birdline message. I was not discouraged.

Rare Sightings

The few hawk owls visiting New York often remain on winter quarters for extended periods. According to Bull's Birds of New York (1985 ed.), a northern hawk owl spent the entire winter of 1975 in Oneida County. More recently, two hawk owls spent extended periods near Saranac Lake and Fort Edward during winters of the 1990s.

Slightly smaller than an American crow, the northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula) is a striking, day hunting owl which constantly searches for prey from a high perch. The bird's usual breeding and wintering range lies in the northern forests of Canada, Alaska, Europe and Asia. Its occasional winter presence in New York and other northern tier states is thought to be irruptive behavior brought on by cyclical population fluctuations of prey in boreal regions. Confronted with a scarcity of prey, northern raptors, also including snowy owls, short-eared owls and northern goshawks, move south.

Success

During my initial search for the hawk owl last January, I stopped at the farmhouse and spoke briefly with the young woman who answered the door. Asked if she knew of a hawk owl in the area, she replied that there were hawks and owls in the area, but that a hawk owl was not familiar to her. When I asked her where she had seen an owl recently, she replied confidently, "At the top of the second maple to the right of the driveway. It arrived just before Christmas." A second unsuccessful search on a windy Saturday was followed by success on Sunday, Jan. 26. I found the hawk owl perched at the very top of that second maple--its home perch for several weeks after my initial sighting.

Root Gets Noticed

The Montgomery County town of Root lies along the NYS Thruway between the Fultonville and Canajoharie exits. The rural township is not found on any highway map--but its hamlets of Sprakers, Currytown, Rural Grove and Flat Creek appear on some. The town's large grasslands, wetlands and woodlots extend from the Mohawk River and Erie Canal south nearly to the Great Western Turnpike (US Rt. 20). Livestock farms, a large modular home manufacturing facility, a small custom cabinet-making firm, Greek-revival homes in various stages of repair, new modular homes, older ranches and trailers dot the landscape. Until the hawk owl arrived, regional notice had been largely avoided in the town since two proposed landfill projects were abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s. After the hawk owl visited, many hundred (if not several thousand) people, young and old, birders and not, from across New York, the northeast and mid-Atlantic, Ohio, Virginia and Texas came to see this rare northern visitor. As they came and went, the hawk owl sat on its home perch--and other perches within view of Corbin Hill--hour by hour, taking wing only to pursue prey, change perches and go to its night roost. Most people came with purpose; others stopped in the rural roadway, inquiring about the fuss. The owl was neither wary of people, their automobiles, nor birding equipment or seemingly aware of human presence or conversation. Finding and killing prey at every opportunity, preening, fluffing, fidgeting and keeping a wary eye on area crows occupied the hawk owl completely.

Technology Improves Birding

Advances in technology have changed the way in which birders follow their quarry. E-mail messages posted on free county, regional or state bird sites or sent directly to member's e-mail addresses have replaced recorded telephone messages as the principle method by which avian matters are communicated. Upstate, there are Oneidabirds, HMbirds, Otsego-Schohariebirds and other websites accessible from almost any web search engine; statewide there is the New York Birding List. Using the combination of a modern spotting scope and a digital camera with an internal zoom, clear images of birds can be taken from farther away than ever before. These pictures can be circulated almost instantly via the internet for identification, verification and pure appreciation.

Unique Behavior

I spent many hours at all times of day watching this particular bird. I have also read much of what has been written about this species by the few ornithologists who have had the opportunity to study it. Though irruptive hawk owls are known to take mostly birds as prey, Root's hawk owl took only rodents. Further, this owl was observed on three occasions hoarding prey it killed by storing it in cavities--even impaling prey on splintered limbs on the "second maple to the right." On two occasions I observed the owl removing previously cached prey. Neither behavior had been previously attributed to hawk owls.

Will the Owl Return?

It is not by chance that wintering raptors of various species frequent Root and other rural towns along the Mohawk. Progress--in the form of modern development or sprawl--is largely absent from these towns. Here, open space is not a call to action; it is a way of rural life, at least for now. During spring, summer and fall, the grasslands, woodlots and wetlands in these towns are also home to other rare visitors from afar, such as the upland sandpiper, unusual sparrows and even the loggerhead shrike. Whether or not a northern hawk owl will quarter in Root again is a complicated question. A large part of the answer depends upon the people that live here--through our actions, we will largely determine the future of these grasslands, these towns, this Mohawk Valley. Setting the stage for another irruptive winter is up to us.

Town of Root attorney Peter Doherty lives in Sharon Springs with his wife and daughter. Birding has been his "quiet passion" since childhood.
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Title Annotation:hawk owl
Author:Doherty, Peter
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Words:1141
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