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A Snowy Christmas Back Home

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Wednesday, January 15, 2014 

Like Jeff Bilsky (see his recent post here), I went home for Christmas this past year.  But unlike Jeff, this was my first trip home for the holidays since I moved out over 2 years ago.  I was looking forward to seeing my family quite a bit but also looking forward to something else gathering in Western New York: Snowy Owls.  There were dozens of reports all across the Lake Ontario shoreline and even reports of them showing up in the country and in airports across the regions- areas that they aren't as commonly found.  Reports of up to 9 being seeing in the same spot only increased my excitement.  Jeff Bilsky and I spoke in excitement over the prospects of looking for Snowy Owls and made a bet who would see the most while we were home. I also missed other winter birds since moving out to Utah including irruptions of finch species, Purple Sandpipers and flocks of Long-tailed Ducks and was hoping I would get to see them again.

Upon landing in Rochester, I scanned the airport while taxiing but that failed to yield any Snowy Owls as it had in previous days. I hoped that there would still be some owls around and that I hadn't missed the spectacle.  Shockingly the ground was mostly green with the snow having melted away the past few days.  This would change the next day as lake effect snow fired up and we had snow most days while I was home.

The next day, I wanted to see some Snowys which I had been reading about enviously for the last few weeks.  I decided to try at the Charlotte Pier where the Genesee River flows into Lake Ontario.  This spot attracts Snowy Owls with its abundance of open water, many birds to eat and areas for the owls to rest and hunt from.  Even in non-irruption years, this location will seemingly have 1 or 2 Snowy Owls on it during the winter.

I headed up to the lake with my brother Jeff, who like me had flown in for Christmas from the West- Prescott Arizona to be exact.  As we drove up towards the pier, I was watching the lakefront when I thought I spotted a whitish blob.  We quickly flipped a U-turn and upon pulling off the road, I realized my suspicions were correct- there was a Snowy Owl!  This dark owl was sitting on the ground on some green grass as if it was trying to get seen by Jeff and me.

 Snowy Owl #1- a young, dark bird

 We made our way to Charlotte Pier as it started to get dark but scanning across the river we spotted another Snowy sitting on the end of adjacent Summerville Pier.  This owl was whiter than the first we saw that day.  There were some other treats besides the owl, including some gorgeous Long-tailed Ducks swimming in the river.

 Snowy Owl #2- a whiter bird than earlier
A Long-tailed Duck in the snow

On Christmas Ever, I decided to try for my second target of the week- a 1st winter male King Eider which was hanging out with a flock of Long-tailed Ducks, but I wouldn't say no to any Snowy Owls that may be out there.  At one such stop to look for Snowys, I heard a melodious chipping that was coming from a flock of American Tree Sparrows.

American Tree Sparrows lurked in brush

I continued to the West Spit, a bit of land that juts out into Braddock's Bay.  While there I didn't see any more Snowys but I did have large flocks of Long-tailed Ducks in the bay, mixed with some Greater Scaup and Red-breasted Mergansers.

 Part of a huge flock of Long-tailed Ducks and Greater Scaup

Some Long-tailed Ducks in the surf

I headed to the location where the King Eider had been seen and soon found the large flock of Long-tailed Ducks it was associating with.  After a few minutes I picked out the larger darker 1st winter male King Eider.  This bird was my Monroe County lifer #270 and my second county lifer of the year (I had a Least Bittern on an earlier trip home).
 The King Eider was hanging out with these Long-tailed Ducks

1st winter male King Eider- Monroe County lifer #270!

I headed down to a cool park along the Genesee River, Turning Point Park, which features an almost 3600 ft boardwalk over the river.  I was hoping to spot some Black Ducks or Carolina Wren, but I missed both species.  I did have an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull hanging out with a small group of gulls but it soon took off into the snow and disappeared.  I did see a cool site with a concrete ship unloading its contents while docked in the river.

A Lesser Black-backed Gull takes off into the snow

A concrete ship in the Genesee River unloads its contents

Christmas Day I did not go anywhere to bird but instead enjoyed all the feeder birds from the warmth and comfort from my grandma's house.  This was fine with me since my grandma's house is a birding hotspot with a yard list over 100 species due to the woods on its property and being on the Erie Canal.  I saw many species that are hard to impossible to see in Utah that I used to take for granted.  Birds like Blue Jays, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Dark-eyed Juncos (the only junco subspecies in the east), White-breasted Nuthatches and Tufted Titmice were a Christmas gift themselves.
 Christmas Day in the Frisch house

White-breasted Nuthatches are common back home

 You can see why they say Red-bellied Woodpeckers are ladder-backed

 A male Red-bellied Woodpecker enjoys some suet.

 The rarely seen red belly of a Red-bellied Woodpecker

 An eastern US nuisance- the Gray Squirrel

 This Northern Cardinal was auditioning for Angry Birds

 Blue Jays were everywhere

A "hovering" Blue Jay

The day after Christmas, I headed up to another winter hotspot after visiting with some friends and their new baby.  This time my choice location was the Irondequoit Bay outlet where a large bay enters into the lake through a small channel that harbors ducks that like both large and small bodies of water so you can get quite the variety of species.  Additionally, Purple Sandpipers can be found along the rocky jetties on either side of the channel and large flocks of gulls may contain some of the white-winged gulls (Iceland and Glaucous) that come in winter on the south shore of Lake Ontario.

 Irondequoit Bay Outlet looking out on Lake Ontario

I was finally going to get to bird with my Aunt Cindy who was responsible for getting me into birding as a kid which is always a treat for me.  My youngest brother Josh also stayed for a little bit and I got to show him some cool species.  I started by scanning through a flock of gulls on the bayside.  The usual culprits were around with many Great Black-backed, Herring and Ring-billed Gulls but mixed in was a stunning 1st winter Glaucous Gull.  This bird really stuck out due to its large size and almost all white plumage.

 Great Black-backed Gulls dwarf the relatively large Herring Gulls

This 1st winter Glaucous Gull really stood out in more than one way

Further out about a half mile away, I scoped out an adult Bald Eagle handing out on the ice and I let my brother view the eagle at 60x magnification before he had to go.  He also got to see the Glaucous Gull and I was glad to get him some nice birds before he had to leave.

My Aunt, Josh and I headed to the outlet where there where dozens of Long-tailed Ducks hanging out very close having because accustomed to all the people who walk the piers or feed the ducks and gulls.  While we looking at the ducks, a man came up to tell us that there was a Snowy Owl on the other side of the outlet.  Knowing Josh really had to leave soon, I implored him to wait 5 more minutes to see the owl.  Luckily, he allowed himself the 5 minutes and we hurried over and saw the Snowy Owl sitting in a bunch of ice chunks that had washed ashore.  This young dark owl sat obligingly and gave my brother some great views of a lifer for him.

  Snowy Owl #3- A lifer for my brother Josh

Hiding among the not very white ice chunks

With my brother departing, my Aunt and I focused on all the ducks in the channels.  The beautiful Long-tailed Ducks put on quite a show, giving close views and often diving together in groups.  It was fun seeing them disappear in rapid succession and then pop back up to the surface in an equally rapid succession.  I also got Black Ducks for the year with some associating with the Mallards.  Further out on the water we had a group of 5 White-winged Scoters including some adult males with their unique facial plumage.  Other ducks included Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Redheads, Greater Scaup and Common Goldeneye.  We didn't see any Purple Sandpipers and there were more Mute Swans than I would have liked but the birding was still great.

 Good and Bad: American Black Duck and Mute Swan

 Juvenile Red-breasted Merganser

 A male Red-breasted Merganser shows off

 A male Long-tailed Duck in flight

 Long-tailed Ducks getting away from trouble

 A very cooperative Long-tailed Duck

 A good example of how the Long-tailed Duck gets its name

Try to find the adult male Long-tailed Ducks in this picture

If you can't already tell, Long-tailed Ducks are my favorite species of duck but unfortunately I have had bad luck seeing them in Utah.  I have only seen them once despite many trips to try and see them.  This is why I relished getting to see large flocks of them again back home.  I even got to hear a flock of them calling- one of my favorite sounds nature has to offer.

Long-tailed Ducks calling at Irondquoit Bay Outlet

Friday was my final full day in New York and I wanted to try for a bunch of Snowy Owls, so my Aunt and I headed out to the Genesee County Airport in Batavia where up to 9 owls were being seen at once.  On our way our we took the scenic county roads and I made sure to scan for any out of the place white blobs.  After seeing a Kestrel, I thought I had seen such a blob on top of a telephone pole on a side street.  We decided to turn around for a better look and when we pulled into a driveway I made a comment about how this yard looked good for screech owls when all of the sudden a gray blob moved inside a hole.  However this small blob made sure to keep an eye on us, so we were able to get a limited view at the gray morph Eastern Screech-Owl looking at us.

 A partially visible Eastern Screech-Owl

Upon turning down the side road, the white blob reveled itself to be a Snowy Owl after all and offered great views from the top of a telephone.  This was my first Snowy Owl I have seen away from the lake shore and I was excited to see one in a new habitat.

A Snowy Owl #4- A country bird

We drove out to the airport and immediately saw a Snowy Owl on a fence near the side of the road.  We both held our breath and drove slowly along side it.  Somehow it didn't flush and stayed in the same spot about 20 feet away as I lost my mind at being so close to one of the most breathtaking birds around.  It just sat there as I watched it and took pictures.  After what seemed like 5 minutes (but was more like 30 seconds), we drove off to look for more owls and I was sad that I would most likely never get to see a Snowy Owl that close again.

Snowy Owl #5- The Approach

This is the best view I will ever get of a Snowy Owl

A little distance up the road, I spotted another Snowy on a telephone pole. One so dark that it almost looked like a Great Gray Owl from a distance and definitely the darkest Snowy I have ever seen.  It was interesting to see the contrast the all white face had with the rest of the body.  Interestingly, this owl seemed to have little ear tufts like a Short-eared Owl and as I thought about it, a few other of the Snowys I saw over my break had small ear tufts too- a feature I had never seen on them before.

Snowy Owl #6- Now with ear tufts

 This Snowy was more black than white

The white face really stuck out

After seeing 3 Snowy Owls in one day and with it getting dark, my Aunt and I headed home.  We did stop again at the house where we had seen the screech-owl and sure enough it was sitting back in its hole in full view.

The screech-owl was more obliging this time

Saturday was my last day in town and when my Aunt asked me where I wanted to bird today, I responded that we could always look for more Snowy Owls.  She seemed a little shocked at this response, but understood when I told her that it may be my last chance to see one more many year so I wanted to get my fill while I could.  Well we wouldn't be specifically be looking for Snowy Owls, we decided to look for some Northern Shrikes near the lake.  We didn't see any shrikes but I did see a Northern Mockingbird but while driving back home, I spotted another white blob in a field.  My Aunt stopped the car and starting backing it up until the blob came into view- a very white Snowy Owl!  Even when we weren't looking for Snowy Owls during the week, it seemed we couldn't help but find them.

 Snowy Owl #7- The final and whitest owl I saw

That was the last Snowy I ended up seeing while home.  A few hours later after hanging out with my family, I was headed back to Salt Lake City.  I was really happy that I had gotten to have so many awesome experience with 7 Snowy Owls that I would never forget.  It was cool getting to see how they all differed from one another and just enjoy their majesty in person.  All the Long-tailed Ducks were also an obvious bonus for any birder.  Mostly though I was thinking about how I was sad to leave my family once again, but one thought kept popping into my head: Warbler season is only 5 months away back east. Sounds like a perfect time to come home again.

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Anonymous barb said...

What beautiful pictures. I could watch the snowy owls forever. Saw my first in Curriers,NY driving in a snows torm just to see the owl. It was worth it. Thanks for sharing beautiful pictures. Barb M.

January 16, 2014 at 5:55 AM  
Blogger Jeff Cooper said...

I think I better go see my mom in Michigan. You have me envious,Kenny.it seems almost too easy to get a Snowy back by the lakes. Nice post and images.

January 16, 2014 at 6:39 AM  
Blogger Robyn said...

Hi Kenny - what a great birding adventure you had over the Holidays. Thanks sharing.

January 16, 2014 at 8:17 AM  

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