One of the first questions I’m asked about one of my favorite East Coast Short-eared Owl destinations is: How DO you pronounce Shawangunk? The name is a Dutch transliteration of a native Munsee Lenape word pronounced Sha-WAN-gunk, which means smokey air. In modern times, locals pronounce it SHONG-gum. One thing’s for sure: The air there is definitely not smokey now, but crisp, clean, and breezy — perfect for owls, hawks, and harriers on the hunt.
Located near the town of Wallkill, just over an hour’s drive up the New York Thruway from Manhattan, the grasslands is a wide-open 566-acre preserve that once was a World War II Army airfield, reclaimed and repurposed in 1999 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The concrete runways were removed and the acreage seeded with a variety of grasses that have matured over the years into a top-tier natural destination for all manner of migratory birds.
Winter is the season for Short-eared Owls, Northern Harriers, and Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks. Spring and summer are perfect for Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Grasshopper, Henslow’s, and Savannah Sparrow, Horned Lark, and Upland Sandpiper.
On two visits this winter, I had decidedly different, though worthy, experiences. The first, in mid-January, resulted in a day of seeing busy Short-eared Owls hunting and a spectacular display from a hovering Rough-legged Hawk. In mid-February, a Red-tailed Hawk provided a thrilling display to end the day when it leapt from a perch to hunt the nearby fields, capture prey, and return to a nearby tree.