A mysterious new resident along Route 100 in Waterbury Center is quietly becoming the area’s biggest celebrity.
From serious birders flocking in from Connecticut and Massachusetts to Vermont bird-lovers who live nearby, a rare northern hawk owl has been captivating camera-toting audiences since mid-December. Many have even observed the bird’s daytime routine of hunting prey.
A year-round Canadian native to the arctic tundra, the hawk owl is rarely seen south of the border, but this particular bird has decided to vacation in Vermont.
And, much like a typical tourist, the bird may be here for the food, the scenery or both.
Allan Strong, an ornithologist and associate dean of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, said hawk owls don’t generally “set up shop” around here.
He said the owl is most likely enjoying a steady diet of field mice and other roaming rodents.
He said a surplus of food is also likely responsible for this winter’s surge in snowy owl sightings.
“We’ve seen a snowy owl explosion,” Strong said. “We’re having it here in Vermont and you can also see it happening right along the East Coast.”
Whereas most owls are nocturnal and are only active at night, the hawk owl and snowy owl are diurnal raptors. This means bird-lovers can see these elusive species in flight, on the hunt, or perched on a branch in broad daylight.
Owl on the prowl
Strong said only about 20 or so hawk owl sightings have been reported in Vermont dating back to the first recorded sighting in 1903.
Since this species of bird normally lives in remotely populated places, he said, it might not be afraid of all the human adoration and attention — it just doesn’t know any better. This explains the reports, he added, of the bird being calm and composed in front of the prying lenses of the public.
Strong and fellow family members set out to spot the northern hawk owl a few weeks ago at its favorite hang-out spot — just up the road from the Cold Hollow Cider Mill near the intersection of Route 100 and Gregg Hill Road.
After their first visit to the site came up empty, Strong and family returned a little while later to see the hawk owl perched atop a telephone pole, intently watching the activity below.
The bird tends to stay put for hours at a time, preferably in a high perch, intently surveying the open land for food sources.
The northern hawk is a medium-sized owl with a long, tapered tail and short, pointed wings. Piercing yellow eyes peer out from beneath a dark crown speckled with white spots.
Strong said the wayward hawk owl seemed to feel at home in the frigid temperatures this early winter. Snowy owls, too, don’t mind the cold.
“When birds like this end up here, it’s usually a question of food and habitat,” he said. “Ultimately, we don’t know what its drive is. It could be a temperature factor as well.”
Robert Salter drove from Swanton on Dec. 28 to see the local celebrity hawk owl. It’s a bird he’d previously only heard about since he began birding a few years back.
He said the owl’s presence started gaining publicity around Christmas on birding blogs and forums, so he and his brother decided it was worth the ride to see if they could catch a glimpse of the bird.
“When we arrived in the morning, a half-dozen people were already there, cameras and scopes pointing at the owl in the tree,” Salter said in an email. “We stayed for a while and took a lot of pictures as the bird flew from tree to tree, grabbed a mouse from the field, flew across the road and back again. It was a great show.”
Salter, like many other birders, is taking the opportunity to scratch the northern hawk owl off his birding “life list” — a collection of birds most people dream of seeing up close but rarely get the chance to check out due to geography and other limitations.
Salter has been sharing pictures and experiences with other people. He posted a video of the bird on YouTube.
“I enjoy sharing the pictures I take with my friends and other birders as much as I love looking at the images other people share,” he said. “Seeing some of the great images of this bird online day after day is what made me take the drive to go see it. I hope a lot of other people take the trip to see this bird before it’s gone.”
Strong said the hawk owl will most likely hang out in Waterbury Center until March before heading back north in search of a cooler climate — and less paparazzi.
Larry Clarfeld drives by the hawk owl’s favorite spot on his daily commute to work as an educator at the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier. So far, he’s seen it three times.
He’s been busy at work fielding calls not only from birders, but also from regular folks just excited to share an owl-sighting story.
Clarfeld has also been following the increased reports of snowy owl sightings in the region. He recently snapped some close-up shots of a snowy owl scoping out the terrain around Knapp Airport in Berlin.
An Internet search for “snowy owl surge” yields countless news stories from up and down the Eastern Seaboard with tales of sightings.
Strong said a big group of snowy owls are hanging around Addison County, and others have been spotted around New England.
The bird has even ruffled some airport officials’ feathers after descending upon the airfield around Boston’s Logan International Airport in record numbers. Strong said the birds could be a hazard to the airport’s high volume of daily air traffic. Efforts are currently underway there to catch and release the owls into a safer environment.
“The birds they’re finding (in Boston) are in really good condition. It shows they’re finding food,” Strong said.
Clarfeld said snowy owl population numbers are dependent on a lemming population boom that occurs about every four years.
“In years where the lemming populations explode, lots of snowy owls are born, and when winter comes, many of the young owls move south,” Clarfeld said. “Snowy Owls are most common on the coast in winter and move farther south than hawk owls, but this has been an incredible year for snowy owls across the Northeast — some would say epic.”
Snowy owls are larger than northern hawk owls, with majestic white plumage and yellow, cat-like eyes.
Clarfeld said he’s just as enchanted as everyone else by the opportunity to see rare owls.
“Owls are captivating and mysterious to a lot of people and they have incredibly intricate patterns that people really feel connected to,” he said. “It’s also something about the yellow eyes.”