Northern Hawk Owl in Maine

by John Briggs on February 7, 2009

in Bird Photographs, Blog, Weekend Birding

Island on the Sheepscot River - Wiscasset, Maine

Island on the Sheepscot River - Wiscasset, Maine

The time had come to take the trip to Bristol, Maine to see the famed Northern Hawk Owl. The boreal species from the northern reaches of North America has been at the same location since the first of January. Sharon and I decided that if we wanted to add this species to our life list, we had better get moving.

It was a race against time to make the 30 mile trip before the clouds over took the mid coast of Maine. I wanted to photograph this bird, and clouds would ruin the opportunity for good pictures.

Crossing over the bridge between Wiscasset and Edgecomb was sureal. Arctic sea smoke was just disapating and everything had a heavy coating of smoke frost. When we reached the end of the bridge, I had to stop to capture an image of a small island in the Sheepscot River that looked so beautiful, it nearly took your breath away.

We turned off Route 1 and went south on Route 130 down the Pemaquid Peninsula. Anxiety began to set in. Would the Owl still be there? Were the directions good? (4/10′s of a mile south of the Bristol Consolidated School, look in the tall trees) Would the clouds hold off?

There was no doubt as to the location after we passed the school. Tracks in the snow from vehicles and humans along the side of the road told us we were in the right spot. I pulled off the road as far as I could and immediately began looking in the “tall trees”. From inside the car, we looked for a good five minutes.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

Oh no! Did it finally decide to head back north? Was it out hunting? Please, please, please show yourself!

I got out of the car to have a better look. I saw movement out the corner of my eye. I wanted to holler, “THERE IT IS!” I knew better than to do that, so I whispered loudly to Sharon, “don’t move!” The Owl was in a tall spruce directly across the road from where we parked.

I took a few images, checked them on the LED screen and decided I needed to adjust the ISO and the exposure. In the mean time, the skies were beginning to become milky with clouds lightly veiling the sun.

Taking more images in a race against the clouds, I had to make several more adjustments to the camera. Suddenly, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped in low over the Hawk Owl causing it to flee into thick cover. Natures way of telling us the show was over.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

 We got back into the car and decided to head back home. I drove down the road several miles and turned around. When we got back to the location where the Owl had been, there it was in the exact same spot where it had been previously.

By this time, clouds had pretty much overtaken the sun. We watched the Hawk Owl for a few more minutes and drove off, bidding farewell to this magnificent creature and wishing it a safe trip back home to the far northern reaches of the boreal forests.

Sharon and I talked about the Owl on the way home. We wondered what brought it here and how long it might stay. The two of us promised to return next weekend if it was still around and if the skies were clear. At least we got to see the Owl and we also chalked up another life bird in our birding quest.

Red-breasted Merganser in flight

Red-breasted Merganser in flight

On the way home, we stopped along Route 1 where the Marsh River goes under the highway and into Sherman Lake. Several Red-breasted  Mergansers were feeding in the only pool of water that was ice free for as far as the eye could see.

The highway was busy with traffic and as a tractor-trailer went by, hitting a bump in the road, making a loud racket scaring the ducks into the air and flying off into the unknown.

What a day! If the Hawk Owl is the only bird that I will see for the rest of the month, it was well worth it. As you can see in the photos, the Owl looks healthy. Serveral reports on the MaineBirds list say that birders have seen it eating small mammals. I am sure when the food supply runs low, it will move on, perhaps bringing a smile to the faces of other birders on the North American continent.

All thumbnail photos in this article are clickable to bring up a larger view. Enjoy!

Camera: Canon 40D
Lens: Canon 100-400mm IS L
Handheld with BushHawk

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl


Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl


Red-breasted Merganser in flight

Red-breasted Merganser in flight


Red-breasted Merganser in flight

Red-breasted Merganser in flight


Red-breasted Merganser in flight

Red-breasted Merganser in flight

Happy birding!


Dawn Fine February 7, 2009 at 9:45 pm

Wow…How very exciting….what a great day you had! wish i could have seen that sight myself…
Your photos today are spectacular…thanks so much for the show!
I look forward to photos from your return trip!

Tricia February 8, 2009 at 2:26 am

Well done on finding the Owl and getting such a great shot. The RB Merganser in flight is stunning – I envy you your bright light for pictures :)

I shall be visiting you again.

Tricia February 8, 2009 at 2:28 am

I meant to add: what is BushHawk?

John Briggs February 8, 2009 at 6:49 am


Thank you very much! With the low angle of the sun this time of year, the heavy snow cover on the ground helps magnify the available light somewhat.

A BushHawk is a rig to help steady heavy or bulky camera equipment. Even with an image stabilized lens, it is sometimes hard to steady a larger camera rig.

You can see the BushHawk here:

Thank you for visiting!


John Briggs February 8, 2009 at 7:04 am


Thank you! I appreciate it!

It was spectacular sight to see a bird so far off track from its normal territory. It will be a sight we remember for the rest of our lives.


Shelley February 9, 2009 at 7:47 am

That owl had his eye on you – fantastic shot! And the merganser looked so beautiful in flight – looked picture postcard perfect.

Brandy February 9, 2009 at 8:27 am

What a lovely owl! And the ducks flying are beautiful. Were you really close to these birds?

John Briggs February 9, 2009 at 10:27 am

Shelley; Yes, it had his eyes on me, but mostly looking around for a meal. On the Merganser, I couldn’t believe the difference in lighting just a few miles inland were the photos were taken.



John Briggs February 9, 2009 at 10:30 am

Brandy; Thank you for visiting and for your comments!

I was not too close to these birds. The Owl was at the top of a tall spruce tree and I was approx. 50 feet from the tree.

With the merganser, i was standing along the road looking down and across at approx. 50 yards.


Kathiesbirds February 10, 2009 at 10:32 am

What a treat to see this bird and get these shots! I have yet to add this one to my lift list! All the photos are wonderful! I love the photo of the island in the river. It is surreal and serene.

John Briggs February 10, 2009 at 10:36 am

Kathiesbirds, with the way the irruption of northern species has been this year, don’t give up hope of someone spotting one in your state.

I would like to paddle out to that island this spring and see what birds are there.

Bird Girl February 14, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Hi John -
What a treat browsing your blog! Your photography is amazing – I am in awe! This is my favorite post so far – the Hawk Owl – how exciting to see and photograph this awesome creature – wow! And the Island shot is just outstanding…should be in a magazine!

Aves May 15, 2010 at 1:01 am

Beautiful photos! The owl is wonderful, as is the merganser…but it looks to me like a common merganser, not red-breasted. What do you think? Either way the crispness of the pictures is amazing.

Steve Sanford March 3, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Beautiful photography. You have probably heard from others by now that the Merg is a Common and not Red-breasted. The definitive feature is the very sharp transition from the reddish head to the white neck. This is much more diffuse in the RB. Also, with such clear images, one would also see the dark areas around the eyes on an RB.

Also, you probably know that the red-headed birds are either adult females or juveniles of either sex. Mergs take a few years to achieve full adult plumage.

I offer these thoughts in the most constructive way and want to thank you again for sharing your very accomplished photography.

BTW: I am a retired waterfowl biologist and now paint and carve birds.

All the best,

Steve Sanford

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