Saturday, January 7, 2012

Snowy Owl

Michigan, along with many states sharing a border with Canada, has enjoyed this winter's breakout of Snowy Owls.  There have been up to five snowys in Harrison Township, Macomb County where at least one or two have been amongst the most reliable to see.

However, the absence of reports of snowy owl sightings near the DNR office this past week nearly deterred Rodolfo Palma and I from our pre-planned trip.  Neither of us had an opportunity to see the owls when they were been reported daily.  Nevertheless, it was such a nice day that we decided to try our chances knowing that we would at least see something.

I hadn't seen Rodolfo since September when he gave a presentation on birding in Chile - his native country - to the Washtenaw Audubon Society.  We got off to a bungled start when, talking too much, we drove past the Metrobeach Metropark exit.  We drove about seven miles beyond before we turned around and headed back west.

We had directions to South River Road, but neither of us is well-acquainted with Lake St. Clair birding locales.  We found the DNR office on a finger of land jutting into the lake and carried our gear out to the tip of the little peninsula.  There were a few ducks on the water here and there - Common Goldeneye, but overall there was a general absence of waterfowl on the lake.

At the tip, however, Rodolfo saw the first of several massive flocks of dark ducks flying overhead.  We stood for approximately ten minutes watching a steady stream of both large and small flocks very high up and flying very fast.  The best identification I could come up with was that they were scaup species.  How many?  Thousands.

While watching the ducks we met up with a local gentleman who walks daily in this location.  He commented that he had seen the snowy owl on the jetty yesterday.  Roldolfo and I were surprised and encouraged. He continued walking in his direction and we continued on to the jetty side.  We scanned the jetty with our scopes.  Nothing.  

We met up with the gentleman again as we were coming to the end of our search and he asked if we has seen the owl.  He pointed out landmarks on the jetty where the owl had been seen on other days.  Nothing.  We were seconds from parting company when he commented that he saw something move to the right of the angled 4x4 jutting from the jetty.  Being polite, but skeptical, I focused my scope on the area.  Sure enough - there was a speckled head with yellow eyes peeking at us from the other side of the jetty.  How the gentleman had seen this with his naked eye is beyond me.  In the years I've been birding I have come to understand how beneficial being long-sighted truly is.  The fact that I am near-sighted makes this all the more acute.  The three of us enjoyed this turn of events.  Minutes later we were joined by four others and we were able to show them the owl.

In the middle of the cropped image above, you can just see the top of the owl's speckled head, the small lump just slightly whiter and protruding above the rock.  Others walked back toward the tip of the peninsula and found a spot where the owl was more exposed.

As always, we took photos and chatted for awhile.  Clouds began to roll in, the wind increased and the sun faded in and out.  We left for lunch with plans to return to see if the bird moved to the peninsula side of the jetty.

After lunch the bird had moved, but only nearer to the angled 4x4, but still on the opposite side of the jetty.  More photos.  By this time, the clouds were in for good and we finally left.  We made a brief stop at Metrobeach Metropark and scanned for a few ducks - goldeneye, common mergs, ruddy ducks and scaup species.

Having such good luck with the snowy owl we decided to try our luck with the short-eared owls on Gotfredson Road.  We made the westbound trek from Macomb County to Washtenaw County arriving at the site with a good amount of daylight still remaining.  Our good luck continued here.  With about ten others we watched one short-eared owl actively hunt, often flying directly towards us and quite near.  As it was well before true dusk I was encouraged to be hyper-optimistic with my little point and shoot.

Even these pathetic photo efforts easily reveal a hunting short-eared owl.

The owl had been hunting for awhile when it was joined by two northern harriers - one juvenile or female and the other a gray adult male.

This is Rodolfo's photo of the same owl and where the bird's little round head and disked face can be seen.

Nice January birding.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Great Gray Owl

For my final day of birding in 2011, I went to Kingsville in southern Ontario to see this astonishing bird that has been present for about a week.  I read the daily reports and wondered if the bird would still be present on Saturday when I would be free to make the trip over. It was. Following an early morning appointment in Ann Arbor, I drove across the Ambassador bridge and arrived shortly after 10:00 am.

The photos speak for themselves - a completely enchanting bird.

Bird on a wire.

One that is in such an unlikely location, however, that it seems almost certain to be in trouble.

On Thursday and Friday a kerfluffle broke out on the listserve I read about photographer behavior as they angle for better and better photos of the Great Gray.  Of course, I knew I wanted to photograph the bird too.  Of all the people (and cars) present on Saturday - the above photo shows a mere fraction of us - all but just a few had cameras.  The owl is not visible in this photo but was on a utility wire (top two photos) above and in front of the man with the black jacket in the foreground center. It seemed to be trying to hunt in the long grasses at the base of the roadside hill where the observers are lined up in the middle of the photo.  At one point it left the wire and dropped to the ground into the grass.  It flew up from the grasses without evidence of prey in its talons and flew across the field to land in the safer perch of a tree.  It seemed clear that so many observers would interfere with its hunting.

Cars lined both sides of the narrow-shouldered road.  At one point a local driver in a white pick-up truck angrily laid on the horn as he tried to make his way past the crowd.

The video above is 5:05 minutes in length because I was hoping to get the owl leaving its perch.  I took this one long video and a few shorter videos but it never did budge.  While taking this video I was approximately 100 feet across the field and standing on a hill so I was essentially level with the bird.  The audio picks up the sounds of the large crowd and there is some interesting commentary.  To view full screen click on the title Great Gray Owl.

Such a beautiful bird and the mild temperatures of the morning tempted me to linger, but I was satisfied with the photos and video I had and I knew that one less person and car could not be a bad thing.  The only thing missing were the street vendors selling hotdogs, popcorn, cotton candy and soda.  I wish I could imagine a good outcome for this spectacular bird.