Rare Owl Attracting Birders from Far and Wide

Path to the nesting site of the Hawk Owl in Waterbury. Photo by C.B. Hall

Path to the nesting site of the Hawk Owl in Waterbury. Photo by C.B. Hall

by C. B. Hall


Bird-watchers from all around the Northeast have been making tracks this winter to an unassuming woodlot in Waterbury to get a glimpse of a northern hawk owl, a rare denizen of the Canadian Shield that has taken up winter residence just off one of the busiest stretches of road in the state.

A hundred yards off Route 100 at Gregg Hill Road, while winter travelers zoom up and down the highway, Surnia ulula holds quiet court in a woodland of pines, hemlocks and deciduous trees. Fifteen inches from stem to stern and weighing in at 11 ounces, the sleekly built bird ranks as a middle-sized owl. Like some other owls, it hunts by daylight, facilitating observation. Like many owls, too, it does not shy away from staring matches with members of our species and presents an excellent photographic subject.

Why the bird, which normally spends the entire year in Canada, headed south to Waterbury is a question exciting much discussion among ornithologists. Bill Barnard, professor of biology at Norwich University, posits the lack of lemmings in the owl’s accustomed habitat as the spur. The lemming, he says, “is very cyclic in its abundance. The owl’s appearance [in Vermont] seems to coincide with the snowy owl’s, which is also a lemming specialist.” And the snowy owl, another northerner, “is all over the place this year.”

While the science of such things provokes plenty of serious discussion, for others the bird is simply a joy to behold, an exemplar of the grace of flying things, as it glides silently, wings stiff like a falcon’s, from tree to tree, or stoops to grab a hapless mouse scurrying across the snow. Swooping up to a perch to dine, this beautiful killer locks its big but unsentimental eyes on the eager watchers below as it clutches its prey.

Some birders, eager for a once-in-a-lifetime sighting, will resort to bizarre means to attract a bird such as a hawk owl, for example by bringing lab mice along to tempt it into the open.

“If we’d had a mouse, we could have thrown it down, and it would have been right there,” one of those on hand in Waterbury on a recent Saturday opined, pointing in front of him, as the owl flew by with its own mouse. Asked if he could be quoted by name, the man demurred, saying, “There are people who might think that unethical.”

The birders at the site included several from Massachusetts, and enthusiasts from at least as far away as New Jersey have reportedly made the pilgrimage. Daniel Schell and Julie Kraus had driven up from Westfield, Massachusetts, to see the bird.

“It’s a life bird for Julie,” Schell explained.

Barnard asks what the life-list enthusiasts—fanatics, if one prefers that term—are doing for the natural world they profess to love. “It’s very interesting in this age of trying to go green,” he muses, “that people will drive a long distance to see a bird . . . . with the idea that they’re environmentalists—and yet they’ll waste so much gas to go see it.”

The business of chasing after rare birds does not lack controversy. The birding world’s more jaded observers have terms for those who drive hundreds of miles to put a northern hawk owl on their lists: chasers in America and twitchers in Britain, in apparent reference to the eager twitching of binoculars.

But one should resist snickering at such lightly derisive designations until one has seen the bird personally, in all its quiet glory, alongside the humdrum of Route 100. Seeing a rare bird reinforces a commitment to preserving wild things, and that reinforcement, some would say, compensates for the resources expended in the process. Schell and Kraus and their kindred birders, while generating plenty of carbon monoxide in their cause, have taken home from Waterbury more than another entry on a life list: this bird is a breath of the untamed North, where the dynamic of human and natural forces differs vastly from what one witnesses from day to day.

“It’s not that they’re tame,” Schell commented, as the owl perched behind him. “They just have no clue about humans.” He compared northern hawk owls to other essentially boreal species that visit Vermont now and then, or reside here, but in remote areas of the state—the three-toed woodpeckers and gray jay, for example. Fear of people comes slowly to these birds of cold, inhospitable places.

Given the species’ known habits, the owl is expected to remain available for audiences in Waterbury until the snow goes out, when it will presumably return to the sanctum of the North Woods, taking with it the bewildering memory of two-footed intruders bearing strange optical devices with which to better behold 11 ounces of wildness.

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