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Winter Raptor Internship

Posted on Mar 14, 2016

There are a number of bird species that call Chautauqua County their home. In particular, there are two species, Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) listed as ‘threatened’ and Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus), listed as ‘endangered’ in New York. The Roger Tory Peterson Institute is now in its third year of helping the DEC conduct surveys for these birds. The primary focus of these surveys is to determine where Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls are spending their time to roost and feed during the winter months.

The Northern Harrier is rather distinctive from a long distance with a slim, long-tail and fairly broad wings. It glides very low over a marsh or grassland, holding its wings in a V-shape while sporting a white patch at the base of its tail. When observed up close, the face has an owlish appearance which helps it listen for mice and voles under the vegetation.

Northern Harrier-1059

Males are gray above and whitish below with black wingtips, a dark trailing edge to the wing, and a black-banded tail. Females and immature birds are brown, with black bands on the tail. Adult females have whitish undersides with brown streaks, whereas immature birds are buffy, with less streaking. All Northern Harriers have a white rump patch that is obvious in flight. During winter, the Northern Harrier’s diet is largely composed of meadow voles.

Meadow Vole

The Short-eared Owl is a medium-sized owl that is mostly mottled brown and a pale chest with thin streaks. It has a large buff wing patch on the outer wing that is visible when in flight. Its diet is also mainly composed of meadow voles. They are a diurnal bird of prey and mainly hunt at dawn and dusk during the winter. The Short-eared Owl flies low to the ground, using its superb hearing to locate its prey and kills it with a bite to the back of the skull.


Currently, we are working with a program called ArcMap to assess potential habitat locations (250 acres or more) that the species may use but have not yet been reported from. I am rather ecstatic to choose some locations that meet the above criteria and take a trip to see if either species can potentially be observed!


ArcMap has been an enjoyable experience, partly due to the fact that it’s something new and I love learning and tackling new challenges! Although there is a definite learning curve like most things, it’s incredible how ArcMap can process different sets of data that are added and ultimately create the foundation for whatever the project at hand may be!

In addition to our own surveys and Arc work, we completed a Short-eared Owl survey in Arkwright, NY a few weeks ago with the NYS DEC, beginning 30 minutes before sunset and finishing 30 minutes after sunset. We followed the state designated protocol which consisted of driving a specific route with a number of different checkpoints. We did not stay at a checkpoint for no longer than about 2 minutes at a time. Despite not seeing any birds, it was enjoyable and a learning experience nonetheless to see what kind of steps are taken when surveying for a particular bird species. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous from the many rolling hills and grape vineyards to the vast views of Lake Erie in the midst and the vibrant sunset that evening.

Although we have not had much luck with winter raptor surveys, there are other migrants which visit during the wintry months such as the Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), and Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris). The snow buntings at the Jamestown Airport were such a joy to watch because they would walk really fast on top of the snow and then hop to avoid falling into the freshly fallen snow! While searching for Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls at the Dunkirk Airport I came upon a flock of Horned Larks that were feeding along the road which was my first time seeing them! The distinctive yellow and black face in addition to their “horns” are awesome!









We need your help, too! If you happen to have any Northern Harrier or Short-eared Owl sightings, please report them in eBird with as many details as possible including date, time, precise location, weather, number of individuals, sex, age, behavior (e.g. hunting, roosting, preening) and general condition of the bird(s). Thank you in advance and happy birding!

Alex Shipherd