Thursday, February 7, 2008

Long Island Owls

The last few days have been "clean-up" for me, meaning looking for birds that aren't real rarities but that I'd like to get out of the way. First stop was Connetequot State Park on Long Island for a reported group of Pine Siskins. Like many of the spots I've visited in the last month, I realized that I'd been to this park before I started birding: Connetequot has a fly-fishing only trout stream that you can fish on, and I'd done that years ago. A place can seem completely changed when you approach it with a different intention, or new knowledge. I'd visited Niagra Falls, for example, when I was photographing tourist spots, and Niagara can be seen as a ticky-tacky place. My last couple of visits, though, have been to the Niagara Falls that is known by birders as a mecca for gulls in the winter...probably the best gull-watching spot in North America. Prospect Park, which for nearly 15 years it was place to walk my dog or have a picnic, has been transformed into a group of spots like Lamppost 249 or Rick's Place or the Killing Field, each a different bird habitat. It makes me wonder what else I don't know, that might change how I see places again.

Philosphical discussions aside, I got down to birding and with some help from the park workers found the spot where the siskins had been feeding. Sure enough, up in the trees above the feeders, there was a group of 20 or so Pine Siskins perched and preening. The light was not flattering, but I managed a few photos and moved on. I was hoping to get all the way to Montauk to look for Red Crossbill again, but never got that far. I worked Dune Road and found the Boat-Tailed Grackles again, and got some better photos of a Common Loon diving in Shinnecock Inlet. I also got a few slightly better shots of the Tundra Swans on Hook Pond. Part of "clean up" for me is also getting better shots of birds I've already seen this year.

I ended the day at Calverton at the old airport there. This is one of the only (if not the only) spots to see Short-Eared Owl and Grasshopper Sparrow on Long Island. After poking around I wound up in the parking lot by the airstrips there, and sure enough there were four Short-Eared Owls perched out on posts by the fields. Short-Eareds are wonderful to watch, especially for the fact that they often hunt in the day, so you can get great looks of them cruising grassland areas before dusk. These birds did not dissapoint, and soon were gliding over the grasses for voles and mice. Their prey scampers under the matted grasses and are hard to see, but they can't hide from the incredible hearing of the owls, who will interrupt a graceful glide with a sudden swoop down to the ground, to emerge with a rodent in their talons. There were a couple of other people there, and we also go to see possible breeding behavior in the birds...two owls would soar up into the air and then flutter around ear other, almost locking talons, and fall back towards the grasses. This is around the breeding season for these birds, and I'm told that it's not unlikely that this was a courtship behavior.

All the more infuriating then, to have the town of Calverton hellbent on destroying this rare grassland. (Click here for a Newsday article). The current plan is to bulldoze the entire place to put in a 37-story indoor ski slope. I'm no expert, but to me the plan smacks of the "Monorail" episode of the Simpsons from years ago, where a huckster convinces the town of Springfield that it needs a monorail and drains them dry. The plans are set, but these owls may put a wrench in the process...Short-Eared Owls are endangered in New York State, and this is a well-known habitat for them. There has to be an environmental review, now, and there's a possibility that the owls will stop the development. I'm praying that it will be so...I can't imagine something less valuable than an indoor ski slope, or more valuable that one of these rare grasslands, and these beautiful birds.

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