All is still from my sheltered vantage point at the edge of the field. Above, pools of clear, bright blue break through the heavy winter sky, turning the white expanse below into a blanket of shimmering diamonds. An icy breeze ruffles the last dry stalks, then disappears into the far tree line and a little mound of snow pounces on something unseen ... What?
Wait a minute - Snow doesn’t pounce.
And that jumping snowball has a big pair of yellow eyes - and they are looking directly at us. Snowy Owl!
The Snowies Are Here!
Snowy owls winter here in New York State, resting in the sleeping fields, feasting on the mice, voles, and other small mammals that inhabit them. The striking white birds arrive in late fall but before the first buds open on naked branches they will be gone again, as silently and swiftly as they arrived, back to the far north, above the Arctic circle where they breed.
If you want to see a snowy owl - now is the time and Fort Edward, New York is the place.
Identifying Snowy Owls
Snowy owls, with their almond shaped golden eyes and pure white feathers accented in soft gray bars are, for me, among the most beautiful of all bird species. Look for them on the ground. These solitary creatures will spend most of their time here in the frozen fields, perched on small earth mounds, or on fence posts, where they listen - not watch - for prey. ( See below for information on the best viewing spot.)
The owls keep warm, alone in the cold and the snow, through ice storms and blizzard conditions, by puffing up their layers of insulation until they resemble big-eyed snowballs. Bad weather does not bother these birds at all.
Impressive In flight, with a wingspan of over five feet (1.5 m), they are not the largest owl species, that honor goes to the great horned owl, but, weighing in at almost four pounds due to all that extra insulation, they are the heaviest.
Found one? Adult male snowy owls can be distinguished by the pristine whiteness of their feathers, females and juveniles have more gray/brown bars. The snowies are impressive, but they are not the only "snow-birds" wintering in Fort Edward's sleeping fields.
Introducing Short-eared Owls!
Once listed as one of New York's most common owls, now there are fewer than 100 short-eared owls left in the state. Fortunately, the grasslands in Washington County, listed by Audubon as an IBA or Important Bird Area, provides the perfect winter habitat for both the "shorties" and snowies. Fort Edward, in the heart of the Washington County Grasslands, is one of the only places left to see this petit endangered owl and is the hope for its survival.
You will recognize a short-eared owl by its intense round eyes and startling stare. The big gold eyes have a dark outline that creates an almost bandit-like mask. Short-eared owls are smaller than snowies, and their wing span extends only 33 to 43 inches ( 85 to 110 cm).
And unlike snowies who use their remarkable hearing to locate prey, short-eared owls rely on their impressive eye sight. The “ears” are actually just feathers and are usually flat against their heads - you may never see them at all.
Short-Eared Owls Winter in Groups
Like the snowy, they too are ground nesters so look for them in the fields, but you can also find them up in the pines, and unlike snowies, they prefer to winter in flocks of two to ten individuals.
Both owl species are mostly daytime hunters, making them easier to spot than the night hunting screech owls, another winter resident.
Early morning and around dusk are the best times to see the snowy and short-eared owls.
Don’t forget to look for dropped feathers when in owl territory. Native Americans believed that owl feathers hold powerful healing magic. Who knows?
Interested in trying your luck at seeing the snowy & short-eared owls and winter birds in Fort Edward?
Contact us here
Washington County Grasslands: Cold Season Paradise for Raptors
New York State's Washington County Grasslands is not just a cold season paradise for owls. Other raptors, such as the red tailed, the threatened Northern harrier, and rough legged hawks, as well as the smaller but equally scrappy falcons: merlin and peregrine all winter here, and "shop" the same fields as the owls. Watching these acrobatic birds soar and dive or finding them perched high on skeleton trees, with their broad shoulders firm against the wind and their eyes at the ready for movement in the grass, is awe-inspiring.
One of Fort Edward's best spots to watch the owls and other raptors is the Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Bird Viewing Area. Here there is a sheltered blind and a handicapped accessible parking lot.
Watch hawks and short-eared owls swoop and dive and compete for small mammals hidden among the frozen grasses on the rolling fields. Look on the ground for snowball mounds of snowy owls. Snowies tend to be quite still then jump at their prey as it runs by.
The shelter also provides a great place to practice your avian and wildlife photography! And remember you are always invited to share your experiences and images with our readers!
Little Winter Jewels: Cardinals, Larks, Buntings, and More!
Winter's big charismatic residents are attention grabbers, but do not overlook the delicate, tiny migrants like snow buntings and horned larks. You will find those in the snow on the ground too. There are also the intrepid year ‘rounders including robins and starlings. Tiny bluebirds, another of my favorites, over winter here. Northern cardinals are also constant residents and so beautifully festive among the icy bare branches.
Fun Fact. Those imports from an English garden, the European starling, is a more accurate spring forecast than a ground hog. Look at their beaks. In winter the beaks are dark and dull looking, when they start changing to bright yellow, you know spring is right around the corner!
Being A Responsible Bird Watcher
When it comes to best practices for responsible owl watching, frankly, the web site of The Friends of the Washington County Grasslands said it best:
It's All About Survival
"Short-eared owls, a New York State endangered species, nest and roost on the ground. The owls emerge from the tall grasses where they hide and rest around dusk each day to hunt for mice and voles. The sight of a dozen or more "Shorties" flying low over a field is a spectacle you'll never forget - but for them it's all about survival. Disturbing nesting and roosting birds is harmful - and illegal.
People walking near their roosting sites causes them to fly up from their hiding places, wasting energy they need to stay warm and hunt. It can also cause them to abandon their roost site. "
A Local Shares an Owl Watching Horror Story:
This is note that I received from a local in regard to NOT responsible owl watching tells it all:
Pardon if I get too crazy on this topic of scaring the birds, but when the Short-Eared Owls showed up last fall on XXXX (don't mention that street please) about 25 cars showed up every day ... the neighbors went crazy, there was yelling and screaming. Some folks brought dogs and children to flush out the birds for photos ... and 3 days later the birds moved 500+ yards back where it's just too far away to see them, and then moved elsewhere. A Park Ranger marked the area No Trespassing and he sat there all day for weeks to enforce it. Now, a few months later, I still drive that road daily, and have not seen any kind of bird but crows in a week. I hope you understand.
We do, My Friend.
Responsible Owl Watching Guidelines:
1. Avoid flushing or otherwise purposely disturbing wildlife
2. NEVER purposely chase wildlife!
3. Keep a respectful distance from nests and young
4. Stay on existing roads, trails, or pathways
5. Know and observe the laws, rules, and regulations governing the site
6. Stay in your vehicle (when viewing from the road), it serves as a blind and often allows for closer and longer observations without disturbing wildlife.
7. Be considerate of others around you (and neighboring landowners).
While DEC encourages people to enjoy watching wildlife in the Washington County Grasslands WMA and other public lands, they ask that you do so in a way that protects wildlife, especially endangered and threatened species.
REMEMBER: Purposely disturbing, flushing, or chasing an endangered or threatened species is harassment and is ILLEGAL.
If you witness such activity please document it and report it to the DEC Dispatch (1-877-457-5680)
Where to See Snowy & Short-eared Owls
Fort Edward is in the heart of the Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area (IBA), 286 acres bought from or donated by local farmers for the preservation of the endangered bird and mammal species that call it home or migrate through. Start there in the blind set up exactly for the purpose, but also be prepared to drive slowly stopping along the road, to look out over fields still-farmed.
The Friends of the Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area run periodic tours and events all year. Contact them to find out what is going on at the time you will be there.
To get a feel for why this place is special watch the video below.
The Towpath Road a 4-mile graveled stretch along the Feeder Canal in nearby Kingsbury, New York, is thought to be some of the best birding (and other small mammal) watching in New York State. Here you can also see some of the water birds, such as the common golden eye ducks, mergansers and mallards that winter in the area. You may do better walking along the road in the winter rather than driving.
Getting Away to Washington County, New York !
Need a weekend remedy from urban winter? Fort Edward is a great secret escape from city life, but don’t tell anyone!
Logistics: Getting There
Glen Falls-Fort Edward is approximately a three and a half hour from Manhattan. Or relax and look out at the scenery from the comfort of train car with an Amtrak ride to Fort Edward-Glen Falls station then pick up a car from the local Enterprise dealership to explore the area.
For a delicious homemade and very, very reasonable breakfast, second breakfast, or lunch try the Broadway Diner. I had the pancakes - yummy!
My favorite place for dinner when I am in Fort Edward is the Anvil Inn Restaurant. The food is good, reasonably priced and the atmosphere is warm and fun! The building was originally built in 1840 as a blacksmith shop. Do not miss it for lunch or dinner. Do not pass up the cranberry pudding for desert! It is a house specialty and worth the drive to Fort Edward.
After a day of birding my favorite thing to do is to get warm and cozy in a local inn. Below are two of our favorites plus a wonderful, locally owned full service hotel with a century of history. They are all in nearby Glen Falls ( we told you Fort Edward was a secret!)
The Queensbury Hotel
Built in 1926, The Queensbury Hotel, with 113 fully appointed rooms and 11 suites, recently came back under local ownership. Owner Ed Moore, a Glen Falls businessman, together with his son Zachary and their partner Tyler Herrick and their team of local architects are dedicated to bringing the grand old lady back to her former splendor. Amenities include an indoor pool, lovely bar/lounge, gorgeous renovated lobby with original details from 1926, nightly music and two restaurants.
The Bell House Inn:
Fully renovated just two years ago your hosts, Bill and Cora, know how to make you feel welcome at the beautiful Bell House Inn. The spacious four rooms all have private baths and sitting areas. Breakfast is cooked to order and includes choices such as organic eggs, yogurt parfait, fresh fruit, and pastries. Coffee is available 24 hours a day. Good conversation is included with your accommodations.
The Lant Hill Farm, Argyle New York
For a true responsible country get-away and a soul enriching experience, the Lant Hill Farm is a perfect choice. The 100+ acre organic farm offers a warm welcome and an abundance of hospitality but only two rooms - so book ahead. Both rooms come with fabulous mountain views and private baths. Breakfast is a farm-to-table experience and there is a big fireplace to chase away the chill of a day spent watching snowy owls! Your hosts Sue Kowaleski and Don Previtali are affiliated with Friends of the IBA as well as The Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. NOFANY.org; NYS Tree Farm, and the Washington County Tourism Association.
Enjoy your snowy owl get-away - and do not forget to tell us about your adventures!
Planning for next year's snowy owl weekend? Let us know, we will help.
About Birds, Birding and Bird Photography in New York State read:
Special Thanks to:
Thanks to the good folks of Fort Edward, New York, many of whom prefer to remain anonymous, for their help in preparing this article.
Dr. Gordon Ellmers
for generously allowing us the use of his wildlife photography.
Follow him on Facebook
Laurie LaFond, Founder
Friends of the Washington County Grasslands IBA