New Castle News

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January 28, 2014

Birdwatchers flock to see rare snowy owls

SHARON — Not everyone wants to spend time outdoors with the temperature hovering near zero. Most people want to stay indoors when frigid Arctic air comes barreling through the region, as it has this month.

But birdwatchers don’t mind, especially when there’s a bird — two owls, actually — rarely seen around here for them to spot and add to their life list of species.

Bill Drolsbaugh and Steve Sanford have been searching for snowy owls and long-eared owls that have been creating a buzz among enthusiasts in the region for months.

The Sharon men are among a loose-knit group of about a half-dozen people whose interest in birds has them haunting habitats all year long.

The snowy owl they saw last month west of New Wilmington was far from its normal Arctic range.

“Its normal range is way up in the tundra toward the North Pole,” said Sanford, 66, who is retired from a career with the Social Security Administration.

“Occasionally, snowy owls will show up in the northern United States. The one we saw a little before Christmas is the first one I’ve seen in this area of Pennsylvania.”

After spotting the bird at a long distance off state Route 208, Sanford and  Drolsbaugh introduced themselves to the Byers family whose house on Heather Heights Road was within 50 to 100 yards of  the fence post the rare visitor was using for a perch.

The members of the Amish family hadn’t ever seen a snowy owl, Sanford said.

“We set up a spotting scope so they got a good look at it,” Sanford said.

The bird’s black spots marked it as a juvenile that hadn’t yet attained the pure white feathers of a mature snowy owl, he said.

In 30 years of watching birds, the native of Maryland said he has seen snowy owls only 10 times. His Pennsylvania sighting was in Lebanon County near Harrisburg.

“We’ve had reports of them being in Mercer County this year but we haven’t found them yet,” Sanford said. “Owls that are in the area now could be here until as late as March.”

The long-eared owls’ range includes this region so they’re not as unusual as snowy owls. However, their survival strategy of blending in with the tangled branches of trees and shrubs makes long-eared owls difficult to see, Drolsbaugh said.

“We had GPS coordinates so we knew exactly where they were,” he said. “We looked for about 20 minutes before we found them. When you spot them they might move an ear or open and close an eye but they are like feathered statues, immobile and very camouflaged.”

Drolsbaugh, 65, who worked in 13 states as an archaeological technician for universities, the federal government and private companies, estimated at “a couple hundred” his life list of bird species he has seen over the last 40 years.

“I just like things in the air,” he said. “My dad took me to air shows but somewhere along the way my interest switched to birds. They are a never ending source of fascination for me.”

Sanford’s life list includes more than 1,000 species.

“It’s probably about 1,300 but I’m really focusing on my Mercer County list,” he said. “In my five years of living here that’s now 233. That gives you a clue that Mercer County is a pretty good birdwatching location.”

American Birding Association offers an online hotline as a source of information about birds not usually seen in Pennsylvania.

It can be found at: http://birdnews.aba.org/maillist/PA01.

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