Two-Owl-Day on Machias Seal Island

20/11/99 NEWSFLASH!! Yesterday was a Two-Owl-Day on Machias Seal Island. Yes folks, lighthousekeeper Paul Cranford was not hallucinating (though at first he thought he was).

When making one of his frequent walks between buildings, a small owl was spotted clinging to the window of the main house in the lea of the wind. Not good at identifying this type of tiny owl, he studied it for perhaps five minutes from 30 feet, then headed back to house for a birdbook and binoculars. A thorough study of the books narrowed it down to two ... a Pygmy or a Boreal ... the latter seemed more likely, but it was so tiny, he got excited and told assistant lighthousekeeper, Rick Daley, he had 'identified' a rare bird: a Northern Pygmy Owl.

Now perhaps if Paul'd get his act together for an eyecheck-up, postive ID could have been made first time round ... but in this case it was a blessing in disguise. The bird had disappeared, and the only option was a thorough search of the island (he had already been on the island over a week without a proper walk ... other than between bed, food, fiddle and computer). After circumnavigating the island once, something caught his eye ... a smallish hawk? No, an owl. Thinking it was the same bird sighted earlier, he approached cautiously, with birdbook and binoculars in hand. (lucky he didn't trip on the rocks).

Confused Cranford thought:

" ... was I that blind the first time round ?

... this owl seems much bigger, and now its ears are showing".


The bird was relatively tame, and Cranford had a good 15 minutes with this bird - half at 50 feet and the remainder from about 30 feet. When approached closer, the bird flew. Different angles and good binoculars made a postive ID ... LONG EARED OWL.

A savvy birder, Cranford realized that the first owl hadn't grown that much in an hour ... so he kept looking for a second sighting of the Pygmy. After another revolution he returned to the main house dejected ... when, low and behold, he sighted the squirt, now in a corner against the foundation of the building. The bird was incredibly tame, and Cranford was able to crawl on his hands and knees, within four feet of the exhausted munchkin. Still wanting to believe it was a Northern Pygmy he called for the unbiased opinion of resident soap opera and satellite television expert, Richard D. Daley. (ex mayor of Shirk-argo). After checking the books, without guidance, his honour came to the conclusion ... Northern Pygmy.

Cranford had to be certain. His birding 'friends-in-higher-places' would surely be grilling him for details ... and although Owly was tame enough for a 'sample taking', Cranford didn't have the stomach for the scientific approach (the pip-squeak was just too cute ... and to boot, if allowed to live, maybe he'd eat some bats .... and if voracious enough, and the bat population declined, perhaps then the Mayor wouldn't be afraid to go out at night).

Back to the books, "All the Birds of North America" mention that the Boreal is "very tame". In "Birds of Nova Scotia" Robie Tufts' description of one that a wind storm brought to Sable Island, seemed exactly like this fellow ... and to boot, Mr. Tufts mentioned that although rare in NS, Boreals do often hang out in Grand Mannan. Still, it seemed sooooo small. (Pygmy is supposed to be 7" and Boreal 10" ... Perhaps Cranford's desire for a rare sighting caused the confusion ... and to further cloud the issue, his aging eyes initially estimated this fellow at 8" ... what could it be?

For a final ID, it was going to be necessary to see the proportions of the tail to the body; and with Owly snuggled in its corner, the ingenious lightkeeper took a novel approach ... the bird seemed so tame, Cranford went for a long stick ... hoping the owl would perch on it. Returning with an 8 foot piece of one-inch conduit, Mr. Cranford didn't take 10 seconds to scare the previously tame bird into flight. When its tail was fully visible, postive ID was possible BOREAL OWL.

Cranford once again has vowed to get his eyes checked. (At age 46, still no glasses, he's been saying this for a year or so) Since it's rare he takes his vowed daily walks, it's unlikely that he'll sight the owls again before they decide to head for greener pastures.

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last upddate 28/11/99