Since I began birding seriously the last few years, I’d lamented that I had never seen an owl in the wild. Even at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm, which usually draws owls during the winter months, I’d never seen one either flying or perched in a tree.
On Saturday afternoon, that changed.
Word had gotten out through birding alerts that short-eared owls had been spotted at the Pole Farm. As I pulled into the last available parking slot at the main Keefe Road parking lot, I spotted a gaggle of photographers around the bend on the paved Lawrence-Hopewell Trail. They had staked out a section of the big fields where they expected, or at least hoped, to spot a shortie.
I rendezvoused with my friend Mark and his dog, who needed some exercise. So instead of joining the scrum, we headed up the central path toward the woods, gambling that an owl might emerge from the tree line. That didn’t happen, although we saw three female Northern harriers.
We wandered slowly through the cedars at the old AT&T Building One oval, hoping to spot an owl in the branches, but no luck. So we headed down the LHT back toward the clusters of photographers closer to Keefe Road. On the way, we spotted a couple of “gray ghost” harriers, although they were too far off to catch on camera.
With sunset coming on, Mark headed back home while I stuck around a bit longer on the fringes of the photo bunch. My priority was to see an owl; I wasn’t concerned about getting a photo, although I bumped up the ISO on my camera to 3200 just in case.
Then it happened.
A short-eared owl came racing across the field, chasing a harrier. Still not sure of what I was seeing, I got the owl in my binoculars and followed it for a second or two. It disappeared, only to fly up with the harrier for an aerial confrontation that lasted a split second. Gasps from the photographers, then the birds disappeared from view.
Finally, I’d seen my first owl, and a few of the photographers who got the owl showed me images in their camera screens. I lingered a few minutes before heading out of the park, not expecting a treat that lay in store when I got home.
About 6:15 p.m., I went out to patio behind our house to turn on the grill, and almost immediately I heard a loud “hoo hoo huh-hoo.” A great horned owl was close by, likely in a tree just beyond our backyard property line. The Merlin app kept lighting up as the owl continued to hoot.
I went inside to get the steaks and called my wife to come out and listen. A few seconds later, the owl hooted a couple of times, then went quiet.
Later in the evening, I discovered that the short-eared owl had taken my life-list count to 200, a fitting milestone. The great horned owl took me to 201.
So I got my owl and then some. What a thrill! I can’t wait to go out again.