Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Visiting the Grasslands

January 15, 2012
Fort Edward Grasslands, NY

I rejoice that there are owls.
    HDT Walden, “Sounds”

Hmm, what to do on a bitterly-cold and breezy Sunday afternoon? What about a trip to open country !

Along with mountains, lakes and river scenery, we are blessed with having an area not too far from here that is a true grassland environment. The Fort Edward Grasslands are unique in that they attract many birds with specific open-space preferences.
In winter, this area is known to be frequented by Short-Eared Owls, which are classified as endangered in New York state. These owls come down from the Artic to spend the winter in the northern U.S.

I had never seen one, so today Jackie and I turned to the East, and took a ride over there.

The owls usually show themselves right around sunset, and we spent some time driving around the back roads, getting glimpses of other raptors known to favor this sort of terrain.  Those include dark-phase Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers.
It was almost impossible to get any photos of these creatures, since we were bundled up from head to toe, and taking photos involved struggling out from the seatbelts, jumping out briefly, and hopping back into the car. It was THAT cold. Jackie wore her coat she calls “The Sleeping Bag.”  But it was still windy enough to make your eyes water, as you held the binoculars or camera up.

It was like travelling back in time, to see farms perched on the hillsides of this beautiful open country.

The future holds many threats of development, so that this type of grassland can also be considered “endangered.”  There are big threats on the horizon as developers eye this tempting, relatively flat scenery.
Thanks to several local organizations, and private property owners, certain places here are set aside as Protected Areas for the birds.
For an overview,
click here.

After our driveabout,  the sun finally began to sink below the horizon.
We were both frozen but headed back to the spot where our birding pal Lindsey suggested was the best place to see an owl.

After some time sitting in the chilly car, I was about ready to head home, but we decided to stay juuust a few moments longer.
For as Thoreau noted in his Journal, when you continue just past that turnaround point, that is when you really see things.

Lo and behold, two other cars appeared and parked nearby on the dead-end road. We got out to chat with them. 
They had already spotted an owl ! For the next ten minutes, we watched two or three owls rise ghostly out of the tall grasses in the distant field. They flapped like bats, with changing  wingbeats. It was too dim to even think of trying to get a photo,  the owls were two fields away, and we were all intently watching through  binoculars, anyway.

Besides, one of the other watchers had a camera with a HUGE lens, mounted on a tripod.  Upon seeing his setup, I was briefly overcome with an acute case of lensvy (= lens envy).
But I got over it when he introduced himself as Gordie Ellmers. Gordie is a local photographer and wildlife observer par excellence. I have admired his amazing photos for years, so it was a thrill to meet him. He was the one to get photos of our feathered quarry today, and here is one that he shared with us afterward:

                           [photo by Gordon Ellmers, used with permission]
You can see more of his stunning photos on this page created by our local Audubon Chapter. Here, in fantastic detail, you will see all three of the raptors that we saw in fleeting glimpses today.

In ten minutes, the owl show was over. We all headed back to our cars.  My hands were frozen in the Binoculars Up position. Jackie was going to stop along the river, on her way back home to the south. She captured the final beauty of the day,  as you can see by her own blog here.
I however, was done exploring, and with my frozen clawed hands on the steering wheel,  steered northward to home.  There was a lasagna dinner waiting for me, and I didn’t make any scenic stops at all !

Afterward, I just couldn’t get warm. These are the times I miss the ol’ woodstove of my Vermont days. It was so-ooo nice to curl up in a chair near the stove and feel the warmth just ooze into you.
I live in a small apartment now, so that is not an option anymore.
But, here you see me, sitting cozy before a fire...?
(OK, it’s really just a dvd that I found for fifty cents at the last library book sale -- how could I resist?)

In the glow of the virtual flames, I browsed through my new and altogether excellent Crossley’s bird guide.  
Later, in Thoreau’s Journal,  I found a good description of the Bird of the Day:

At midday (3 p.m.) saw an owl fly from toward the river
and alight on Mrs. Richardson’s front-yard fence.
Got quite near it, and followed it to a rock on the heap of dirt at Collier’s cellar. A rather dark brown owl above
(with a decided owl head (and eyes), though not very broad), with longitudinal tawny streaks (or the reverse),
none transverse, growing lighter down the breast,
and a length clear rusty yellowish or cream-color beneath and about feathered feet.  Wings large and long, with a distinct black spot beneath;
bill and claws, I think, black. Saw no ears.  Kept turning its head and great black eyes this way and that when it heard me, but appeared not to see me.
Saw my shadow better, for I approached on the sunny side.
I am inclined to think it the short-eared owl,
though I could see no ears, though it reminded me of what I had read of the hawk owl.
It was a foot or more long and spread about three feet.
Flew somewhat flappingly, yet hawk-like.
Went within two or three rods of it.
      HDT Journal, December 8, 1853

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