Despite the strong wind and 15 degree temperatures, it was so sunny out today that I had to go birding. I was hoping to try for some photos of the locally uncommon White-crowned Sparrows and more common American Tree Sparrows, so my first stop was to an area local birders call Whitehall Farms. After walking around for a bit and not finding many birds, I was starting to get worried it was too windy but soon I found a few tree sparrows hunkered into a brush pile. A single immature White-crowned Sparrow popped up into view as well! Winding around some tall grasses and then circling a few clumps of trees turned up a total of 5 White-crowned Sparrows (1 adult and 4 immatures) and a nice assortment of other winter songbirds including some cooperative American Robins.
I was starting to get cold and figured that I had seen most of the sparrows in the area, so turned around to trudge through the snow, into the wind, and head back towards my car. However, right when I started to turn back I noticed the shape of a large owl perched low on a distant hedgerow. To my surprise, a beautiful Great Horned Owl was tucked-up and sleeping in the sun! I slowly made my way closer, constantly checking that the owl was still asleep. Once I was within 100 feet, I crawled over closer and tried to stay hidden in the grass. The owl remained still, with its eye closed tight. After a few minutes it did slowly open its eyes, and looked at me and stood up a little taller, but after a minute or two it fell back to sleep and I snuck away. Very cold but sunny days are great for finding roosting owls, and I have been able to find Great Horned, Barred, and Eastern Screech-Owls in past winters. Look for them either roosting out in the open or sticking their heads out of tree cavities and snags, and facing the sun. Another great way to find roosting owls is to look and listen for crows and other birds mobbing the roosting owls.
From Whitehall I was planning to check some habitat along Spring Creek for birds drawn to the open, flowing water. Linden Hall Rd had some good habitat for snipe and pipits, but all that I found was 70 Mallards and a few other birds. I thought about heading back to town then, but was already out by some nice field habitat so I took a drive around to see if I could find a Snowy Owl or other field birds. I wandered around on Tusseyville Rd, Airport Rd, and then turned onto Williams Rd. All that I could find were crows and jays, not even a Red-tailed Hawk, but Williams Rd came through with three Horned Larks. I pulled my car over to watch the larks in the road ahead of me for a few minutes, and then glanced over to my right and spotted a large, dark raptor flying up out of a patch of trees. Sunny days like this usually lure a few Turkey Vultures up from Huntingdon County so that’s what I expected to see when I got my binos on the bird, but was shocked to see that it was actually an adult Golden Eagle! The eagle began soaring as soon as it cleared the treetops, and gained some height. The eagle then set it’s wings and began gliding in my direction! I threw my car in reverse and tried to line up with the path I thought the bird would take and then slowly stepped out my car. Just in time, the eagle soared directly over my head and was low enough that I could see it actually looking down at me! It made two more circles over and then glided to the east and went out of view as it flew low through some tall trees.
Golden Eagles are rarely seen away from ridge-top hawkwatches in central Pennsylvania, and wintering birds typically like to stick to the rugged, mountain environment as well so it was quite a shock to see this massive bird gliding towards me! Even though this was just the fourth wintering Golden Eagle that I have seen in the county, it was actually my second this week! Anna Fasoli and I found another adult bird two days ago that glided over us on Gilltown Rd with is only a few miles north of where I saw the eagle today. Perhaps this is the same bird, that has come down into the valleys to find a better food source?