(Photo — Larry Master)
This northern hawk owl was seen in the apple tree orchards in Peru in the winter of 2008-2010.
 
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PERU — For several months this winter, bird watchers from around the Northeast perched themselves along a quiet road among the apple tree orchards in the town of Peru.

These birding enthusiasts were here to observe the northern hawk owl, a species of bird not commonly found in the area.

The northern hawk owl is most commonly found in coniferous or mixed forests near open areas in Canada and Alaska. On rare occasions, they are spotted in the Adirondack region.

Several years ago, there was one that wintered in the Bloomingdale Bog. This winter, there have been sightings in at least three New York regions: Potsdam, Champlain and in Peru.

On Friday, March 13, I drove to the apple tree orchards in the vicinity of Branch Hollow and Clark roads to find the Peru bird. I was accompanied by Brian McAllister, an avid Saranac Lake birder who helps organize the Great Adirondack Birding Festival every June at the Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths.

This day, we didn’t have any luck finding the bird. We thought it may have left the area, but I later found out that it was seen over the weekend by Lake Placid birder Larry Master. On this particular day, the hawk owl was likely away from the road.

“There were days it wouldn’t show up for a good hour because it was hunting down low,” McAllister said as we drove along.

Heading up to Peru, we had reason to believe the owl was still in this area because it had been spotted four days prior to our trip, according to a post in a forum on birdingonthe.net, a birding Web site.

A post in the same forum did report that the owl wintering in Champlain was still present on March 14, the day after Brian and I visited Peru.

McAllister had been up to Peru three or four times this winter to see the northern hawk owl and had seen it each time. The owl is a favorite of birders because it will stay in the same area for months at a time, if it finds a reliable food source there.

In Peru, the owl was often perched on a birch tree, in the apple tree orchards or on utility poles. The bird preys on small rodents, such as voles, and these structures allow the owl to spot its food.

“They can actually see movement in the snow as these little critters move around,” McAllister said.

This is one of the fascinating aspects of the northern hawk owl. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Web site, this owl can see prey half a mile away and then seize it from under a foot of snow. It hunts both during the day and at night.

This medium-sized owl is a little smaller than an adult crow. Adults are generally about 14 to 18 inches in height with a 28-inch wingspan, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

One thing that distinguishes the owl from others is that it will perch in an inclined position, not always upright like other owls.

“The tail flairs out, so it tends to look more hawk-like,” McAllister said.

One of the reasons the northern hawk owl would venture south of its normal habitat is if it were looking for a healthy rodent population.

“The lack of a food source up north is the main reason it would come down here,” McAllister said.

When these owls do appear here, they often attract a fair share of visitors. McAllister said when he was in Peru earlier this winter, he saw cars with license plates from all over the Northeast. A birder he knew, drove nine hours from Pittsburgh just to see this owl.

Unfortunately, on this day, the northern hawk owl was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, it was on the hunt somewhere in the orchards.