A Nemesis No More
It's safe to say that I've seen a lot of birds this year.
From Acorn Woodpeckers to a Zenaida Dove, my travels have spanned the entire ABA (American Birding Association) area, from the Florida Keys to Alaska's volcanic Aleutian Isles.
Nearly every birder has a bird that they really want to see. For one birder it might be a vagrant thrush from Siberia, and for another a wild flamingo or maybe the challenge of attracting a hummingbird into the backyard with a feeder. These birds we pursue hold a special allure and often are thought about for countless hours, until the time finally arrives for the trip or bird walk that may present the opportunity to cross paths with said bird. Sometimes the target bird is spotted, and other times it remains elusive. Trying multiple times and not seeing it often elevates the status of the chase, creating a "nemesis" out of what might be an ordinary bird to a different birder elsewhere. I've heard many "nemesis bird" stories this year, smiling and nodding as I know each person has their own bird that they just can't seem to connect with. For me, the Northern Hawk Owl was this bird.
My journey to see this species started years ago, and since then I've tried nearly a dozen times to find Hawk Owls in the lower 48, taking me on numerous adventures in beautiful country across the mountains of the West in search of my own story of finding this elusive bird. I've hiked miles in national parks, driven remote forest roads through burned forest, and even resorted to chasing recent sightings on my birthday, hoping nature would grant me a gift of seeing one. This was my year getting to know nature better, and doing so meant my chances of seeing a Northern Hawk Owl flew sky high.
My Alaska Airlines flight landed in Anchorage, where Isaac was waiting for me in his black Audi. I picked up my luggage and we loaded it into the car and sped off. The plan for the following morning was to cruise out the Glenn Highway, spending the day immersed in some beautiful country and giving ourselves the best chance possible of spotting a Northern Hawk Owl, a diurnal owl that lives in northern boreal forests. I'd wanted to see this bird for some time, and struck out in July when I drove this stretch of road looking for the bird, so in my mind this was the time and place to find one. I wouldn't admit to this then, but I had a good feeling about the day.
I'm skipping some pieces of the story here on purpose, to abbreviate the story for my blog. I'll leave the backstory for your discovery in my book, so I'll jump into the action.
The humming of the engine crescendoed as Isaac accelerated, cruising up the gradual incline of the winding Glenn Highway. To my right, the Matanuska River lay below, carving out a winding course through pines, spruces, firs, and aspen in a valley that was formed by the slow receding of ice and snow. Ahead, an impenetrable wall of clouds sat draped over the Talkeetna mountains, fresh snow spilling out onto the cold slopes below. The gray sun, obscured by snow-filled clouds shone pale winter rays through holes in the clouds, creating a patchwork of light on the distant mountainsides. The vibrance of fall color animated the landscape, slowly relenting to the stillness of winter.
We talked as the miles flew by, stopping only at scenic lookouts to scan the trees for birds. I nonchalantly started an eBird list after our first stop, where we heard juncos calling, and the croaking of several distant Ravens. As we progressed up the highway, each stop to get out and scan for owls grew colder. Before long, a light dusting of snow covered the ground, and fiery orange willows and ink-black spruce sprouted up from the roadside, their hues accented by the snowfall. Hundreds of miles passed as our game of stop-and-go continued, searching the tops of for any unusual blob-like shapes perched on top.
During the drive Isaac and I talked about growing up in Alaska, flying, hunting, and Adak- the island in the Aleutian chain I had just left earlier in the day, and where Isaac had lived and worked for six years. Our conversation was frequently interrupted by minutes of silence which seemed to be mutually agreed upon. We both were present with the task at hand, and spotting owls was much more important than making small talk. Miles of silence passed until one of us would turn our head quickly-
We slowed down, and stopped for a closer look. Uhhh.... the repeat culprit of several of our "bird" sightings were Gray Jays, a friendly bird commonly seen around trailheads and camp sites looking for free handouts from hikers. However, in this setting perched atop a Spruce tree with head tucked, a Gray Jay can resemble a Northern Hawk Owl closely enough to fool experienced birders- more than once.
My eyes grew tired of scanning the tops of trees speeding along at 50 miles per hour. I used my phone's stopwatch to time how many trees I looked at in a 15-second time period, and multiplied that by four to give me the number of trees surveyed per minute. Then I multiplied that times 60 minutes, calculating the number of trees looked at for owls per hour. Here's my math:
70 trees per 15 seconds (70)(4) = 280 trees/minute 280 x 60 minutes = 16,800 trees per hour
We birded for most of the day, and I wasn't looking (or counting) trees as intently for the duration of the 3-hour drive. I wanted to see an owl, and the habitat looked perfect. We did see a duo of accipiter species- both Northern Goshawk and Sharp-shinned, a good assortment of puddle ducks, a couple of Northern Shrikes, and some flyover Sharp-tailed Grouse- a welcome addition to our day list. After several bouts of stop-and-go, we slowed down to make a mental note of a gravel side road to check on the way back. Before we returned to full speed, Isaac slowed down, his gaze fixated on a tree ahead. "Look, there's your bird!" Sure enough, perched in a tree mere 30 feet away from the roadside. I raised my binoculars and took a quick look to confirm- it was surely a hawk owl! We high-fived quickly and shared smiles, before pulling off the road further. I fumbled for my camera in the back seat, and once we reached a halt I took another look through my binoculars. The bird seemed to look right through the window at me. I rolled the window down, and the owl promptly flew off. It landed a good distance further away, carried by a flight of several strong flaps, and then a strong upward pitch to set it atop a different blob-shaped tree, set back further from the road and obscured by plenty of blobby spruces in between. I snapped a couple of pictures then watched it stare intently at the ground, transfixed by some unobservable motion below. It dropped down and flew commandingly to a new perch even further away. Isaac parked the car and we discussed our options. Many birders I know would have stopped there, calling it a solid sighting, worthy of satiating their ambitions of seeing a new species and adding it to their life list. The thought of bears, bull moose in rut, and other hazards of swampy boreal forest may have turned others away from leaving the road and plunging deep into the forest. We strategized a plan that involved bushwhacking; for us the adventure was just beginning.
Unsuccessful in our quest to re-locate the Northern Hawk Owl, we wandered back to the roadway, picking wild blueberries along the way to supplement our snacking.
Successful in our search, we began the several-hundred-mile drive home. Before long, a Northern Hawk Owl flew right in front of us across the road, gliding up to land atop a roadside spruce. I savored every second of watching this bird, who was much more accommodating than the first owl. After several minutes it too disappeared into the forest, preoccupied with finding his next meal. Half an hour later, we were treated to a third bird perched on a power line, actively hunting. I watched this bird for over half an hour, and it actually flew towards me and was not concerned with my presence, remaining vigilant in the hunt. I watched it expertly drop down into the tangled vegetation and emerge with a tundra vole, which it grasped in one foot, balancing precariously on the top of the tree with the other. It took two bites to devour the vole, and I photographed the entire sequence. I moved further away to get a different angle on the bird, and looked away momentarily to set up my shot. When my eyes darted back to the tree-top perch, the bird was gone, a ghost bird- but a nemesis no more.
A true born-and-bred Alaskan, raised on the North Slope and guiding birders since childhood, Isaac is the real deal. If I could go back in time and describe the man I would want to grow up and be, my 14-year-old self would describe Isaac. He's flown airplanes in and out of the Alaskan Bush, birded some of the most beautiful areas of Alaska, and is a true sportsman and conservationist in the highest sense of the word.
What in your experience makes you different from other birders?
The fact that I've been so hands-on with birds has set me apart. When I was a kid I was helping my dad run his birding stations. I banded birds from sparrows and longspurs all the way up to yellow-billed loons and swans. Being able to have birds in the hand and study their plumages and structure has been huge. I can visualize and know how those birds are put together. I've prepared bird skins and raised a lot of wild waterfowl. Watching ducks and geese hatch and getting to watch their behavior, how they interact and see their breeding displays... I've been really lucky to be able to do that, and I take that with me when I go out birding.
What would you tell someone who is on the fence about coming up to Alaska to go birding?
It's not all about the birds, even though we all love birds. Coming to Alaska you get so much more. You see the scenery, the mountains and everything else. The people of Alaska are pretty unique- you have a lot of different native cultures and villages and towns that have a long history. It gives you a really cool experience besides just showing up to [check] off the birds.
Birding is pretty incredible. Where we've come from and where we're going as far as the interest and the amount of people and young kids that are out birding these days... The technology we have available when it comes to social media, digital cameras... it's making birding come alive for a lot of people that weren't able to [go birding] or didn't even know birding existed!