Sunday, January 22, 2012

Finding a Snowy Owl

A few weeks ago I saw an article online talking about how this was a good year for people in the US to see Snowy Owls, as the owls were moving south in high numbers.  Later that day I heard a similar report on NPR.  Apparently, this was a good summer for lemmings way up north, so many more baby owls were born and raised than in a normal year.  Some of these owls are now moving south to get enough food.  Snowies are being seen from southern New England across the Midwest (Oklahoma and Missouri) all the way out to Oregon.  

The weekend after I heard about the owls, my wife and I were heading up to see her sister in Eastern Pennsylvania.  So I turned to ebird to look to see if there were reports near their place.  ebird is a site run by the Cornell Lab for Ornithology that collects bird sighting data from people and provides for consumption by both the general public and the scientific community.  It is one of the best examples of the growing "citizen science" activities.  Along the same vein as SETI@Home, which gained popularity several years ago for using spare computer time on your home PC to process signals from space and look for signs of extraterrestrial life.  But ebird, and several other recent examples, allow the citizen-scientists to take a more active role.  For ebird, after going for a bird walk, even around the backyard, I just submit my checklist.  That data is added to everyone else's reports.  I can see what I have reported before as well as what others are seeing.  So in this case, I went to the explore data tab and searched for Snowy Owl reports this month.  As I zoomed in on reporting locations I could see the specific spots they were being reported as well as other people's notes. 

Snowy Owl with prey (red spot at feet)
As luck would have it, there were two sightings within easy distance of their house.  One was being seen quite regularly and at a public park while the other was seen just occasionally and at the field of a small airport.  So when we were up there, Sharon and myself, Sharon's sister and husband as well as Sharon's mom, all piled into the car and drove up to the park.  It was a bitterly cold day, especially for us Virginians, with temperatures struggling to stay in the mid-20's. We stopped by the visitor center at the park and the ranger their gave us good directions to find it.  Luckily it was only a quarter mile walk from the car to the owl.  The owl had been hanging around on the side of a rock-covered dam.  When we arrived there were a handful of people there so they quickly pointed the owl out to us.  We set up our scope and got some great views.  I had taken my camera and tried to get some photos.  But between the cold and the distance, I wasn't able to get particularly good ones.  But definitely good enough to document the sighting. 

The owl appeared to be eating a gull.  When we first arrived, the owl was slowing moving across the dam, taking 10-15 foot "hops" every minute or so.  After a few hops, it settled in and we saw it eating.  Through the scope we could see it ripping the flesh off a wing of a large white bird. So I can only assume that it had killed the gull earlier and then stashed it for later as we would have seen it dragging the bird along if the owl had been carrying it.  For the next 20 minutes or so, the owl just sat there eating and never moved.  Finally, the cold got to be too much and our party started making their way back to the car and hot cocoa at home.  

This is just the second time Sharon and I have seen a Snowy Owl and both have been incredible experiences.  They are so big and beautiful.  It would be wonderful to see one active in their native habitat some time.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Great Blue Heron waiting for dinner
Many years ago a series of encounters with Great Blue Herons started me on my adventures with birdwatching.  Just as I was starting birdwatching, I saw a Great Blue Heron every day.  Sometimes one would just fly across the road as I was driving.  Other days I would see one at the park or the pond at school near where I parked.  I really liked the birds: they were large, beautiful and easy to identify.  I loved the gangly but efficient way they flew and how they would slowly walk, always on the lookout for prey.  The constant excitement drew me in further to birdwatching and that eventually re-lit my interest in nature.

Night Heron
 Now I'm lucky to live somewhere where seeing a range of herons and egrets is a regular occurrence.  Both of these images were taken in my back yard.  And that points out another of my interest: nature photography. Combining birdwatching, and nature studies in general, with photography has given me a new way to enjoy the world around us.  Although sometimes, too many interests leads to a sore back as I try to carry binoculars, several field guides, a spotting scope and camera all at once.  
Great Egret flying back to its nightly roost

In this blog, I hope to capture some of my adventures outside with birds, bugs, plants, mushrooms (a favorite of mine), and my attempts to photograph them all.  Here's hoping it will be fun.