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Year End PA Trip part 1

01/02/2014

My family and I ventured back to Pittsburgh for Christmas.  We had a fairly uneventful trip back a few days before and made it to my parent’s house in Tarentum around midnight.  I was up early the next day, Christmas Eve, to go look for Snowy Owls with my oldest Nephew.  My initial plan was to go right to Presque Isle State Park (PISP) at Erie where I knew there were some owls. But I had heard that there were some owls in some Amish fields about half way between Pittsburgh and Erie, which would give us longer to look for owls and then get back to my Grandmother’s house in time to see Santa make a pre-midnight visit to the kids.  We hemmed and hawed all the way up I-79, looking at the radar for snow at PISP waiting for the 5 inches of snow that they were supposed to get.

I finally decided to go to the farmland instead of Lake Erie at the last minute.  We had directions to a location with 2 owls that had been reliably seen for the last few days.  On the way I’m pretty sure that a flock of Snow Buntings flew over our car, but it’s really hard to pull over on the side of the road in PA, hardly any shoulders and everyone has to drive fast and be up your butt.  So when I did stop we couldn’t locate the birds again, so I don’t know if they were or not.  But we soon saw a hawk sitting in a tree and I turned off to get a better look.  It ended up being an oddly colored Red-Tailed Hawk (thanks to FB and r/whatsthisbird for clarifying the ID).

Red-Tailed Hawk, Lawrence County PA

Red-Tailed Hawk, Lawrence County PA

We soon located the area of the Owls and the entire place was snowy and looked like Snowy Owls.

Amish Farms, Lawrence County PA

Amish Farms, Lawrence County PA

And it was cold, cold and windy.  We were slowly driving around the roads when I caught a flash of white wings off in the distance!  I pulled over, jumped out of the car and started taking photos of the bird.

Not and Owl 1, Northern Harrier, Lawrence County PA

Not an Owl 1, Northern Harrier, Lawrence County PA

But as it got closer I could see that it had dark wing-tips, and Snowy Owls don’t have that.  It was a beautiful male Northern Harrier, not a Snowy Owl.

We drove on and soon saw a raptor shape flying towards the car, I once again hopped out and started taking photos as the bird flew low enough that I may have been able to jump up and give it a high-five.

Not an Owl 2, Rough-Legged Hawk, Lawrence County PA

Not an Owl 2, Rough-Legged Hawk, Lawrence County PA

It was definitely not a Snowy Owl, but a beautiful Rough-Legged Hawk, which continued on it’s merry way.  We drove around some more, we made a few laps of the roads where the Owls were supposed to be, but were coming up short. There were some other people driving around too and nobody was seeing any Owls.  We ended up seeing one more raptor, another Red-Tailed Hawk, but not a Snowy Owl.

Red-Tailed Hawk, Lawrence County PA

Not an Owl 3, Red-Tailed Hawk, Lawrence County PA

We were at the point where we had to head back if we weren’t going to be late, and I had been in Pittsburgh for a day and had barely seen anyone except for my parents and my nephew; who by this point was only looking for Angry Birds on his phone.

I decided to check ebird one more time for any other sightings and found one on our way back.  We pulled up to the area, which was a field behind some houses. I scanned the fields and spotted a white owl shape off in a field. I asked one of the homeowners that was out if we could walk through the yard to get a closer look at his owl and he said “what owl?” and then “sure”.  So we walk into the snow and I set up my camera and tripod and I’m so excited and high-fiving my nephew.  A Snowy Owl, finally!

Snowy Owl?, Lawrence County PA

Snowy Owl?, Lawrence County PA

I could see it lifting up it’s head and looking around, my nephew couldn’t see it, but I kept pointing and saying “right there, see!?!” but he didn’t.  So I decided to show him a zoomed photo on my camera when I got a good look at the owl…

Not an Owl 4, Lawrence County PA

Not an Owl 4, Lawrence County PA

… and it was a fu#(@&g bag.  The wind was blowing it up and the handle-holes was making it look like it had a dark face and the writing towards the back looked like dark feathers.  I was devastated, too upset to even laugh about it then.  I swore a few times, asked my nephew to forget what he heard, which he responded to by saying “I’ve heard worse from grandma” (which is true), packed up the gear and went back to meet the rest of my family for Christmas Eve dinner and a visit from Santa.

Thus endeth part 1 of my tale, to be continued…

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