Owling!

By Eamon Corbett

Intrepid owl-seekers at Fresh Pond

Intrepid owl-seekers at Fresh Pond

A couple weeks ago I heard reports of an Eastern Screech-Owl living in a tree in Cambridge, near Fresh Pond. Apparently the tree was slated to be cut down, but they stopped after discovering the owl. So on Saturday the 11th five of us took the bus to Fresh Pond to see if it was still around.

On the way to the bus stop, we spotted something odd in a tree cavity: an owl! But alas, it was made of plastic, so we continued on our way, towards the street corner with the owl tree.

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Something seems off

When we arrived, we were surprised to find significantly less tree that we had expected: they had stopped cutting it down, but not until it was something of a glorified stump. Sure enough, however, there was a nice owl-sized cavity, complete with gray feathers lining the wood. The only thing missing (other than the rest of the tree) was the owl itself. After talking to a local resident, we resolved to walk around the pond, and return later in the afternoon.

A surprising spot for an owl

A surprising spot for an owl..

But the feathers are there.

But the feathers are there.

Fresh Pond was beautiful on a sunny day, and we spotted a handful of birds floating on the water: a Bufflehead and Ring-necked Duck, both ducks, and a striking Common Loon. Most of the loons we see around here are in winter plumage, so it was great to get a view of this one, which was in sharp black-and-white checkered breeding plumage

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A drake (male) Ring-necked Duck with its glaring yellow eye

A poor photograph of a striking bird: breeding plumage Common Loon

A poor photograph of a striking bird: breeding plumage Common Loon

A few of our number had to head out, but we took a tip from a pair of birders passing by and stopped first at Mount Auburn Cemetery, where a pair of Great Horned Owls have taken up residence. We found the tall pines they call home, and the birders looking up, and soon were gazing at a majestic Great Horned Owl, which glared back imperiously. From a different angle we spotted the second member of the pair, more obscured by branches. Between the two of them, we calculated that we had seen 17 times as much owl, by mass, as if we had just seen the hoped-for (and tiny) Screech-Owl.

Great Horned Owls are super badass

Back to sleep

Owl number 2

Owl number 2

Looking down, we saw that the ground was carpeted with the evidence of their hunting prowess: fur, feathers, skulls, pellets, and a decapitated mouse littered the area below their trees. It made us very happy to not be small rodents. I also spotted a large bird high in a distant tree and was very surprised to realize that it was a duck: wood ducks are one of the few species of ducks that frequently spend time perched in trees.

Gazing up at the owls

Gazing up at the owls

Rodent skull

Rodent skull

There were a lot of blue jay feathers: probably bad news for the jay itself.

There were a lot of blue jay feathers: probably bad news for the jay itself.

Owl pellet! They regurgitate these balls of fur and bones after swallowing their prey whole.

Owl pellet! They regurgitate these balls of fur and bones after swallowing their prey whole.

It's a duck in a tree! Male wood duck.

It’s a duck in a tree! Male wood duck.

Two of our number had to leave after the owls, but those of us remaining hiked up the hill to the Mt. Auburn tower, with spectacular views of Boston, the Charles, and Harvard in the distance. A Red-tailed Hawk amazed us by gliding and soaring directly over our heads, hanging in the sky effortlessly.

Mt. Auburn Tower

Mt. Auburn Tower

The view from the tower: Harvard on the left, Boston on the right

The view from the tower: Harvard on the left, Boston on the right

Red-tailed Hawk in the blue sky

Red-tailed Hawk in the blue sky

One the way back we stopped by the vernal pool in the Dell to look for amphibians, and then headed back to the owl spot to give it another shot, but were thwarted on both attempts. Spirits still high, we headed back to Harvard very happy with our nature-filled afternoon.

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A sunny afternoon at Fresh Pond

Contemplating life on the old tracks at Fresh Pond

Contemplating life on the old tracks at Fresh Pond

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