Archive for the ‘owls’ Category

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Brushes With Greatness: the Snowy Owl

January 17, 2010

On Monday the 11th I left the house at 4 am and made the 2 1/2 hour drive from Fort Collins down to El Paso County, to search for the recently reported Snowy Owl that had been seen frequently in a subdivision northwest of Falcon, CO the day before. I was not sure of my prospects, knowing that this species can be quite hard to chase because of their nomadic qualities. Nonetheless, I felt that leaving so early would give me the best chances of seeing it if it were anywhere in the area.

I had wondered what the feeding habits were of the Snowy Owl, if these birds hunted at night. If they did, I felt like my chances were reduced, as the bird would likely forage away from this accessible area and head towards who-knows-where. My book “North American Owls” by Paul Johnsgard made no mention of their foraging styles, and the Birds of North America Online entry for Snowy Owl plainly states that it is “[n]ot known if these owls hunt at night, or even by moonlight, during winter darkness.” Fascinating – and this is in fact typical of a fair number of species even here in North America, in that there is still a lot we don’t know about how birds actually live.

I arrived at the subdivision (which I later learned is technically part of Peyton) around 6:40am. The eastern horizon was getting light, and I began my search in earnest. My plan was to go to the western portion of the network of accessible roads and scan the rooftops and antennas for large birds perch atop them, and hope to find silhouettes while scanning with my spotting scope. To my utter amazement my plan worked brilliantly, as I found a suspicious-looking character on a chimney/stovepipe vent some distance away within just 5 minutes. He didn’t stay put for long, but he also didn’t go far, as after a few minutes watching it became apparent that what he was doing was moving around from one perch to the next trying to improve his vantage points for finding prey in the open grassy fields surrounding the widely-spaced homes.

Eventually he found a nice TV antenna to search from.

After I took this shot, he launched again into a distant field, and for a moment I lost track of him. But he emerged again a minute later, and as I followed his flight in the scope I could see that he had something underfoot. I never got a clear look at it, but it was fairly large and dark, like a rat perhaps. That’s all I could tell as I watched him start to tear into it from quite a distance. The light was increasing, and I set up my rig for digiscoping, which I hadn’t tried doing for nearly two years. I hoped that I could just remember how to do it!

The light grew brighter as the sun finally peeked up from the horizon. I realized I could probably swing around and get a better-lit vantage point, and perhaps be a little closer. These digiscoped shots were made from about 250 yards if I had to guess, in very suboptimal light.

These next shots were made from the other side of the cul-de-sac, and the bird is in the same spot as before. I snapped about 2 or 3 dozen digiscoped shots, the vast majority of which were blurry. I blame the camera for most of that, but user error certainly played a part too. Still, a couple images came out ok. This time I was closer, and I estimate the range of these shots to be around 75-100 yards.

The next photo was taken with my handheld SLR and gives you an idea of what the actual distance between me and the bird was. This is fully zoomed out (300mm).

The bird had stayed put in this spot for over 40 minutes. Apparently after eating that large rat, he was fat and happy, and just digesting. A few other birders had arrived and all got terrific looks and photos from here as well. Finally, the bird flew a bit further westward to another grassy spot closer to a house and the road, and the several of us scooted the couple hundred yards along to follow. He perched with a residence in view behind him, which belonged to a fellow who later emailed me and asked for a copy of some of my photos.

At this point my remote shutter-release for my digiscope camera (an ancient Nikon Coolpix 995) had stopped working presumably due to the cold, so the only way I could take steady pictures with it was to use the timer. And that worked fine, although it also meant waiting 10 seconds every time I snapped a picture, and also not knowing where the bird would be looking when I snapped it. But then, as is the case with digital under any circumstance, just snap the hell out of it and see what comes out. Eventually I got a couple real winners:

After a few minutes here the bird flew across the road and into the field just south of us. It was quite a bit further away and in poor light, so my bird photography was done for the day. I needed to head back north to Fort Collins anyway, but I was thrilled about having seen this lovely animal under good light and mild weather. Here was the birder scene as of 8:30am:

The last photo actually has the bird in it too – you might zoom in though. Look for the small white dot in the middle of the field.

Heading back was the happiest 2+ hour drive I’ve had in quite a while. Not even the Denver traffic got me down. How many of those schlubs on I-25 had seen a Snowy Owl that morning? Not many, not many at all.
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Solo

March 6, 2006

(NOTE: I actually composed most of this on Feb 28, but hadn’t gotten around to finish it for posting.)

I got up very early this morning to do something I’ve never done before – go owling solo.

The biggest trouble of course is dragging yourself out of bed. It’s nice and cozy there, whereas the outside world promises only cold and makes pestering demands of consciousness and mental acuity. Still, you can’t get it out of your head that in the dead of night -there- -are- -owls- -out- -there-, so you force yourself up, even as the clock says 5 minutes after 3 a.m.

After the first 5 or 10 minutes though, the drowsiness gives way to excitement, especially as you become aware that virtually everyone else is still fast asleep, leaving you and only you as the sentinel. Pitch dark with the new moon, and no cars on the road – at least for a time, the world seems to belong only to you.

I drove up Rist Canyon Rd, since I’d heard that was a good area to look for small owls. I’m in dire need of seeing, or at least hearing, small owls, like Eastern Screech-Owl, Northern Saw-Whet Owl, Boreal Owl, and Northern Pygmy Owl. After driving a couple miles in, I got out of my truck and just listened. Silence. I then practiced a few of my Saw-Whet pip calls, and after just a minute, a Great Horned Owl some ways up the canyon hooted back. Wow! I’d never had a conversation before with an owl. Granted, I was probably just pissing it off, smack-talking like some intruder owl, but still, we were communicating. It sounds trivial, but it was surprisingly visceral.

I made a few other stops in the next hour or so, but hadn’t elicited much else in response until I returned to more or less the same spot I started. I pipped again, and this time, I got a real Saw-Whet reply. It sounded fairly close, and I clambered a short ways off the road in hopes of getting my flashlight onto it. But it was far enough up the hill and in the trees to discourage me, and once it stopped pipping around 5:15am, I gave up altogether. I’ll find the owl some other time – at least I now know where they are.

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Cool Birds 2: the Great Horned Owl

December 10, 2005

We are blessed here in North America with one of the most fearsome as well as evocative birds – the Great Horned Owl. It is a familiar bird to most people, and yet probably only few have ever had the opportunity to witness them in closer quarters. They are by no means rare, but they are rarely seen or heard by the population at large – in most cases you do have to go looking for them to see them, often at night. The good part is that when you do see them, you will be enchanted by those huge forward-facing yellow eyes staring at you. And even if you don’t see them, just hearing their hoots, especially if you’re camping in the woods and you wake up to hear them at 4am as I have, can be just as exciting. There’s something inexpressibly haunting about knowing there are highly skilled hunters prowling the tree canopy in the dead of night.

The Great Horned Owl belongs to the Family Strigidae, the “typical owls”. This is a fairly large family, consisting of over 160 species worldwide, of which 18 live in North America. The Great Horned is not actually the largest North American owl (Snowy and Great Gray Owls are larger), but it is pretty large as owls go. They are most familiar for their resonant low-pitched hoot calls, which are what most people imagine owl calls to be – usually, two rapid hoots, followed by 2-4 slower hoots. They are nocturnal hunters, preferring to feed mostly on small mammals like rodents ands rabbits; passerine birds and sometimes game birds like quail or pheasant; and other small critters like lizards or scorpions. However, they are also capable of taking down even larger prey like skunks – at the RMRP we recently admitted a GHOW that anyone with a sense of smell would know had just been feeding on one. Great Horneds will also prey upon other birds of prey, especially their nestlings. I’ll discuss shortly how they manage to do that effectively.

Great Horned Owl, Oct 16 2005First, a couple images I’ve captured. Last September I snapped this shot of a GHOW at Cottonwood Hollow, just off Prospect Rd in Fort Collins near the Poudre River. It was kind enough to light onto a branch only yards from the trail, but as you can see it gave me the evil eye as I edged gingerly toward it for a closer look. Even though they are largely nocturnal, Great Horneds can be active during the day too, as this one was. One possibility is that this one was looking for a new nest site. GHOWs don’t build their own nests, but rather seek abandoned ones belonging to other large birds. They can also nest in tree cavities, crevices, or stumps.

Great Horned Owl with 4 chicks, April 17, 2005Speaking of nest sites – earlier in April while on a trip with the RMRP, I got this unfortunately blurry shot of a nesting GHOW in Frank State Wildlife Area, east of Fort Collins. Not easy to see, but there are 4 nestlings being watched over – an unusually high number for the species, which normally raise no more than 3 at a time. Our trip leaders remarked that this wasn’t the only fruitful nest they’d seen recently. Apparently last spring was a good one for Great Horneds here.

The definitive outward physical feature of GHOWs is their ear tufts, often called horns, but technically referred to as plumicorns. They are the source of this bird’s common English name, but these tufts are not actually associated with its ears. Owl ears are located on the sides of their heads, asymmetrically, so that they are better able to pinpoint sound direction with utmost precision, especially at night. The tufts, on the other hand, serve as both mood communicators to other owls (they can be erected or lowered), and as “shape interruptors”, a useful adaptation that makes it harder for prey to identify them as a predatory bird. The idea here is that the “horns” make it more likely that a prey item will not recognize the body shape of the owl, if, say, it is perched nearby in low light.

One of the reasons GHOWs do as well as they do is that their nesting cycle starts considerably earlier than many other birds – some breed as early as January. Their thick plumage and diverse feeding habits allow them to overwinter in colder climes, and to survive late winter freezes. This basically gives their young, who are fledged by March or April, a head start on any other nesting birds in their area, making it all the easier to prey on them and especially their young. Their prey list includes not only small owls, but even the young of other birds of prey like Osprey or Red-tailed Hawks. This early breeding is a remarkable adaptation which helps us understand why their range is as large as it is – an expansive diet increases options especially in places where specific food sources are highly cyclical.

Another reason GHOWs do well, and one reason they are such a cool bird, is that their feathers come with an amazing feature whereby the barbs on the leading edge of the flight feathers are especially long and well-separated. This serves to reduce turbulence and therefore wing noise while in flight – a silencer, if you will. The reduction in flight noise is dramatic – while tending to GHOWs in the large flights (cages) at the RMRP, I’m stunned by how silent those that fly overhead from one high perch to the other are, even while flapping. Not only does this allow them to hear their prey more easily, it gives them an extra stealth factor while honing in on their target. This feature isn’t unique to Great Horneds – in fact it is present in many owls, and even some nightjars – but it is one that for them has evolved to perfection.

Just because a bird is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t also be a cool bird. The Great Horned Owl is a perfect example of that – we in North America should be thrilled to have them right here lurking in our own neighborhoods.