When I knew for sure we would be heading to Maine for the weekend I knew my plans would include a side trip to see if I could find the Northern Hawk Owl that everyone has been talking about. I consider the Northern Hawk Owl to be one of those species of birds that I would never see in my lifetime. It just seemed too exotic and elusive to me. I was sure it would take a trip on snow shoes or by dog sled to ever find one, yet one has been reported for over a month in Palmyra, Maine, right off route 2 and just east of Skowhegan. Since Skowhegan is about five minutes from where my in-laws live, I could hardy pass up the chance to look for this bird.
Sunday morning is a bright blue day as we head west from Newport on Route 2. Puffy clouds fluff themselves in the sky driven by a strong NW Wind. At my request Gus is driving slowly along the road while I scan the snow-covered farm fields and woodlands on my side of the road. From the eBird report I know that most of the sightings of this species have been on the South side of route 2 in an area bordering the Madawaska Stream. As we come down a little hill that will cross the waterway I look off to the south where I see a road sign that says Cutis lane, and a bigger sign that says, “Riverside Estates, Lots for Sale.” Gus turns the car around at the first opportunity and we head back.
We enter on the snow covered dirt road and start scanning the surrounding woods and open areas. I have my bins in hand, but suddenly realize my camera is in the far back of the vehicle. Gus stops the car for me and I jump out to retrieve it and then jump back in. The last thing I want to do is find this bird and not be ready to photograph it, but as we reach the end of the road and turn the car around, Gus and I both know we are searching for a needle in a haystack. The last report sighting of this bird on eBird was January 16, over 10 days ago. Really, what are my chances of seeing it now?
Gus is letting the car creep along slowly. I have rolled my window down to listen and look. We are headed towards Route 2 now and I am looking to the right while Gus is driving and keeping an eye on the left side. I say to him, “If you see anything that looks like a lump on a tree or a bush, tell me!” He answers me by saying, “You mean like this?”
I lean over him and look out his driver’s side window and there at the tippity top of the trees I see a feathered lump with a long tail streaming out behind it. That’s it! I cry! I cannot believe what I am seeing! I open the car door and step into the bright sunshine using the vehicle as a shield. The sun is behind the bird and the wind is rocking the tree but the bird clings tenaciously to its perch! I snap off one quick photo, then try to still my heart to snap off some more. However, I know that this birds is backlit by bright sunshine at the top of a swaying tree and will appear as little more than a silhouette against that bright blue sky, so I get back in the car and Gus backs up to see if we can get a better vantage point with a better angle of the sunlight on the bird. But the more we back up and the light gets better, the more the trees start to get in the way.
I lower my camera and get back inside the car. I am filled with wonder over the fact that I even saw the bird, and disappointed that I did not get a longer or closer look at it. But I DID see it and it is Life Bird number 423 for me!
For the rest of the day whenever I say, “I cannot believe we found that bird,” Gus responds by saying, “Me either! It was like looking for a needle in a haystack!” We are both incredulous. Me, because I never thought we would see one, Gus because he never thought we would find it. But we did! And it didn’t require snowshoes or a dog sled after all!
“Blue Skies, shining on me…nothing but blue skies, do I see…”