Saturday, December 9, 2017

Thoughts on Owls

Owls seem to have intrigued and have inspired many. Perhaps it is because Owls are cute and curious, perhaps it is because they are awesome hunters, perhaps it is because they are seen less frequently than their diurnal raptor relatives, or perhaps it is just because Owls are awesome! They are used as education birds often after they get injured or imprint illegally to humans as babies and cannot return to the wild. A quick search on Google returned 132 million pages for "owls" whereas "warbler" returned less than 2% of that many.  There strong opinions on Owls seemingly disregard respect for others and completely ignore science. I realize there is still much to be learned, but I have a hard time believing that any personal opinion (without support) is more likely to be correct that scientific projects.  Yes I am biased toward science and data; if you don't know what bias is please look it up rather than ask! Anyways, this blog focuses on my personal thoughts toward owls as a birder rather than as a scientist.

Personal Opinion: Owls bring out craziness! 

The Good!

Owls are often spark interests in birds and nature. A kid seeing a white Harry Potter owl, also known as a Snowy Owl, may result in them caring about nature and birds the rest of their life!  I can remember the Snowy Owl that landed in a branch mere feet above my head while deer hunting one November in Minnesota; it was magical. I met an elderly gentleman that shared how he saw his first Short-Eared Owl just a month ago. I suspected his smile has not diminished in size upon telling the story.

The Bad! 

Owls spark an insane desire to see them that can be bad for the bird. The guilt is on many levels and should not be unfairly put on only one group. As a birder I suspect we have all been guilty of driving a car close to a perched bird only to have it fly off.  When I had a camera in my hand I was too often tempted to walk closer to perched birds, often resulting in them fly. I've unfortunately seen others do far worse; trespassing, repeatedly harassing the bird for a photo, and yes even baiting. It is my opinion that we should minimize any stress on birds.

My Takeaway

I share locations of owls to individuals because I still believe that people are good. Sometimes their actions afterwards result in my unwillingness to share any further information with them unfortunately. I don't post specific locations of owls publicly to eBird or to ListServs unless it is already there; thus I don't add more locations. I realize how tough this is for others to follow up on reports. Even in Olaf Danielson's big year he expressed frustration that the only ebird report for Northern Hawk Owl was at the county level (yes it was mine). That story had a good result because he went to the same location we saw it at anyways, he was the one that shared the location with us in the first place.  Alas I read repeated reports of ^$$%@&*s stressing birds in the north-woods to get their shot. It would seem that the value of a photo is much higher for the person taking the photo than for anyone else. Many of the best bird photographers offer travel trips (7 times as many results on google compared to warblers!) to pay their bills because making a living selling photos is very tough. If you read this far in the blog you likely already know my personal opinion; take a snapshot to remember the moment from a respectful distance. Celebrate any good fortune if a bird flies toward you and offers the perfect photo but be willing to go home without the money shot. Share the photo we love seeing them. Lastly, don't pretend that you found a bird without help of others if you relied on them. That last one makes you seem ungrateful, personally I am quite thankful that others have kindly shared locations to check and I hope that I have respected the birds.

2 of 7 Short-eared Owls seen tonight in Miami County. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

2017 Summer Travels: Canada in June

Tessa, Morgan, Michaela & Danielle 2017-06-09 #01Timing worked out early this summer and we were able to squeeze in a week trip north to MN visiting family and fishing in Canada the second week of June, which was almost unexpected given the our commitments around the KC area.  

We left Friday and stopped in Staples before heading to Lake of the Woods the next day.  We lucked out and Great Grandma Betty, Stacie, Tessa, and Morgan were available for supper at Tower Pizza.

The girls spent two days in Canada while I spent an extra couple of days there dad while the girls were back in central Minnesota. Here are some photos and their memories from this year's jaunt north.

Michaela & Danielle 2017-06-10 #01
Baudette Minnesota...perhaps the land of 10,000 statues!
Michaela 2017-06-11 Journal Michaela 2017-06-10 #01
Michaela's Journal
Christine & Danielle 2017-06-10 #01 Danielle 2017-06-11 Journal
Danielle's Journal

Here are a couple more photos from the trip. The sunset is similar to one that we've seen many times before, yet is still something to watch each night. The lunch location is similar to many throughout the lake; it only requires a relatively nice rock to land the boat next to.

Grandparents, Michaela & Danielle 2017-06-11 #03

Lake Of The Woods 4

Grandparents, Michaela & Danielle 2017-06-10 #01 Grandparents, Michaela & Danielle 2017-06-11 #04
These Yellow Perch were brought back for family, we ate walleyes and let the Northern Pike go.
It was wonderful seeing so many extended family during a get together the last night. We played a few games of cards but didn't get too many people to try out the slip n slide.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Eagle Days

Christine, Michaela & Danielle 2017-01-13 #01
A recent walk through the woods.
As many of you know, I got into bird watching and birding shortly after Michaela was born. As a baby she would not sleep on her own, so carrying her in slings while we went for walks was one option. Since that time, we have went as a family to many outdoor education programs, introduced them to many species, and in general often try to spend time outdoors.

This past weekend we went to Eagle Days at Wyandotte County Lake. Three years ago we attended the event but this is the first year since then in which the schedule worked out.

While there were various activities going on during the event, the Operation Wildlife presentations and their educational birds, were the highlight.

Below are some photos from two different programs and the girls memories from the day (their written comments are below this paragraph). Just a heads up, I did not fact check their worries, we'll just treat them as the gold girl's alternative facts if disputed.

OWL - Peregrine Male    OWL - Broadwing Hawk

A Peregrine Falcon (top left) is the fastest animal in the world and have nose flaps that help protect it while it is in a stoop.  Broadwing Hawks (top right) migrate to South America in large flocks.

Both of these Eastern Screech-Owls (below) are missing an eye due to getting hit by a car.
They are the smallest owl with tufted horns.

OWL - Eastern Screech-Owl Gray     OWL - Eastern Screech-Owl Red

In order to keep a wild bird, the Operation Wildlife facility has to have a permit and the bird must have an injury that does not allow it to be released. Some of these birds were unable to be released as they imprinted on humans.  Raptors imprint for the first 13 weeks of their lives.  If you find a baby bird put it back in the nest or leave it alone rather than bring it home!

In the second program we went across the lake to the lodge and saw another dozen species.

OWL - Swainsons    OWL - Harris
If you wanted to have animals named after you should have been a friend of John James Audubon like
William Swainson (Swainson's Hawk) and Edward Harris (Harris's Hawk right side).

The tail of Bald Eagles are almost brown in their first year. In each year afterwards there will be more white on the tail feathers. It takes five years for the tail and head feathers to become completely white.  The name Bald is a historic simplification for the balled usage meaning white, but now we seem to think it means hairless.

OWL - Kestrel  OWL - Prairie Falcon  OWL - Merlin
All species in the Falcon family (American Kestrel, Prairie Falcon, and Merlin L to R) have a malar stripe
distinguishing them from other hawks.

The American Kestrel is the smallest member of the falcon family. The Merlin is the similar in size as the American Kestrel, but only appears in winter months for much of the US.

OWL - Rough-Legged Hawk   OWL - Barn Owl
The Rough-Legged Hawks (left) have many feathers on their legs! The Barn Owl (right), also known as
the Ghost Owl, will nest in buildings and screams

Dad writing again.....the program was awesome for me, but the best was watching the kids sit still and pay attention for a couple hours straight!

William and Danielle 2017-01-22

Friday, January 20, 2017

Northern MN Birding: Sunday January 8th 2017

After three remarkable days there was one target bird remaining for our return trip to Kansas City on Sunday. It was the previously reported Slaty-Backed Gull in Des Moines. This is a bird I potentially saw a week earlier with my wife and kids, but it was too far away to tell for certain and never spread it's wings while we were watching.  I wanted another chance at this vagrant.  

Before we got too far into our drive we saw a couple of Rough-legged Hawks. One of these birds was a dark adult male. Below are some photo of Rough-Legged Hawks I saw over the Christmas break. The dark male on the left hand side was the same bird we saw on Sunday.


By midday we read a report of a Brambling in Nebraska. Unfortunately it was too far to arrive before dark and we continued as planned. Two days later we would drive to Nebraska only to arrive at the house five minutes after it was last seen. Back in Des Moines we stopped at the locations the Slaty-Backed Gull had previously been reported around Saylorville Lake. At the fourth stop we finally found gulls, but there were only a few there. None of the gulls were Black-backed but I grabbed the scope none-the-less and focused on each bird. One stood out from the handful of Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls. It was an adult California Gull! While this bird is common further west, it is tough to find in the Midwest. My hopes were so high that the rare bird did not compare to the hopeful vagrant and I failed to take any pictures of it. Alas it wasn't even a bittersweet consolation for dipping on the Slaty-Backed Gull again. 

Even with the last day miss the trip was absolutely amazing. During the massive road-tour Jennifer added 13 lifers, Micky 10, and I added one! Below is a complete list of species and the daily number of birds of that species seen on the trip.

Trip Totals

Fortunately planning the trip was not as challenging as visiting an area for the first time since I've been on these roads and searched the areas multiple years before. Realistically anyone could search recent reports on eBird, the MOUNet Listserv, and Facebook groups to have a decent idea of where to start looking for their target species. Volunteers at the Bog Welcome center are amazingly kind and often share recent information for visitors. 

If I've learned anything from the past three years of showing KC birders around northern Minnesota it is to make sure everyone has cold-weather clothing. We were fortunate to see all the species we did from the comfort of a vehicle this year. It is nice to have a reliable car and being prepared for the worse case scenario. Respect private property and remember that others call these areas home. Don't be a bad steward of the land, block the road, or represent birders as anything other than grateful guests. While I could give driving suggestions for snow packed icy roads, I suspect no matter what I write here won't change your tendencies anyways. Instead make sure to add AAA, your insurance, and tow-company contacts to your phone as you may be lucky enough to have coverage if something happens.  Good birding.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Northern MN Birding: Saturday January 7th 2017

After a successful Thursday at Sax-Zim Bog and Friday in Lake County we had a few misses from our target list.  We had missed Sharp-tailed Grouse Thursday, Black-backed Woodpecker both days, and dipped on the Golden-Crowned Sparrow in Duluth on Friday. With reports from Friday of Northern Hawk Owl we decided on three targets for Saturday: Golden-crowned Sparrow, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Northern Hawk Owl. We knew the plan would require quite a lot of driving for the odd mix of species, but it was the best chance to get as much as possible with the last remaining day in case this trip was not one that would be repeated in the near future for either Jennifer or Micky.

We checked out of the hotel bright and early and started the morning before first light at the Golden-crowned Sparrow stakeout. Shortly after 7:20 am the bird appeared with two Dark-eyed Juncos! It was quite dark and we could barely see any field-marks, but the golden crown between the top of the head and the bill of the adult bird was visible!  It was not great views and too dark for photos, but it was enough to be identified. 

Micky's Sharp-Tailed Grouse
Three grouse species in three days: Ruffed, Spruce, and Sharp-Tailed!
From there we headed northwest to Sax-Zim Bog with hopes of finding Sharp-tailed Grouse. We drove directly to the lek and as luck would have it, we saw three of them out in the field! Two target birds with almost no time spent searching for them, it would be one of those days! 

More Ruffed Grouse and Pine Grosbeaks were seen along our drive, but with the amazing speed at which we found our first two target birds we quickly headed further northwest with hopes of finding a Northern Hawk Owl. 

Hoary Redpoll

Not the Hoary Redpoll we saw, 
but it is similar in appearance.


The Northern Haw is an
awesome looking species!
We passed Grand Rapids on the way and stopped for a Curve-Billed Thrasher. This species is regular in Kansas but quite tough in Minnesota. We had no intention of spending much time for this species, and left before it was refound. Fortunately the Minnesota birders found it a half an hour after our departure. I said hi to the ones I recognized and met a few new faces, but we had another species in mind. 

We drove to Washkish Minnesota and grabbed lunch from the convenience store. It was full of people going to Red Lake for icefishing, which was evidenced by the small town that we could see out on the ice as we drove by.

In the middle of the road were large flocks of Pine Siskins with a few Redpolls mixed in.  As we stopped along the busy road we watched the flock, which was too slow to fly away with each passing car. A Siskin was hit by each car we watched. In the carnage we also noticed a white fluff-ball mixed in the flock. It was a male Hoary Redpoll with. It really stood out from the other hundred birds! While this species may be lumped together with Common Redpoll in the near future, it was an unexpected lifer for the trip. With fewer Redpolls seen this winter, I figured we would miss it.

Shortly after we found a Northern Hawk Owl along Highway 72. I was actually talking on the phone with Christine when we spotted the bird. I could hear here say, "You must have spotted your bird", but only faintly as my phone was somewhere on the floor. It was the second time I reacted to a bird and dropped/put-down the phone with her on the other end. Thankfully she is amazingly understanding and was not mad when I called back. We had been searching at a slower pace for only 15 minutes when the bird was spotted. With amazing luck, we had seen all three target species by early afternoon!  

Northern Hawk Owl
This is my only action shot that was in focus, taken shortly after the bird flew from one perch to another.

With plans of staying in central Minnesota at my parents we made a quick decision to head further west in search of Gray Partridge. We had been prepared to drive north to Roseau if needed for the Hawk Owl, but fortunately that time could now be spent on a species that was not on our target list a week earlier.  Our basic strategy was to get in the correct region of the state and drive back roads at slower speeds searching windbreaks and fields following up on a sighting almost a week old!

Day 3 Route
Approximately 500 miles!
After an hour of nothing and light starting to fade we found a flock of snow buntings in the road near a conservation area southwest of Terrebonne, Minnesota. They had flown into a harvested corn field and I jumped outside hoping to relocate them for Jennifer and Micky. As luck would have it, a handful of Gray Partridge decided to fly from that field of corn stubble over to the conservation area and crossed the road right in front of us! For the second time in three days we added a lifer at last light.

It was an AMAZING day! 

We made it to my parents by 8 pm, saw the three target birds for the day and did not have to drive to the Canadian border to do so, and added two lifers more than we had dreamed at the beginning of the day. I'm very fortunate to have parents that not only open their house up to us and friends but they even listened to our stories and were curious of our adventures.

Sunday was a travel day back to KC and the last day of this trip, but we had one more target bird to try for. The next blog post will detail the last search and an overall summary of the trip.  Here is a list of lifers from Saturday.

Day 3 Lifers

Monday, January 16, 2017

Northern MN Birding: Friday January 6th 2017

After a wonderful day at Sax-Zim Bog on Thursday where we only missed one target species we decided to head north along Lake Superior to Lake County with hopes of finding Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Three-toed Woodpeckers. The other target for the day was a Bohemian Waxwing.  

We left early in the morning from Duluth and made our way north along Lake County 2. We were in the appropriate area at first light but did not have any luck finding a Spruce Grouse. Our basic strategy was to drive slow along the road and hope to find one along the road gritting. We tried Lake County 1 for a few miles but turned around to give County Road 2 a second attempt. Within 4 miles of the intersection, and almost exactly where the Sand River eBird hotspot is, we found a single male Spruce Grouse in the middle of the road. A lifer for all of us!

Spruce Grouse
The bird seemed to have no worries toward us.

Map - Day 2
Click here for entire map.
We took pictures as it casually walked in front of us. Two other cars came from the other direction that were birders as well, elated to see this species also. From there we headed north to Tomahawk Road. I did not know the condition of the road but had hoped it would be open to attempt to find Black-Backed Woodpecker, Three-Toed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee (the north east points on my map).

The road was only plowed for a couple of miles and we had to turn around before reaching our desired locations. We stopped at a small black spruce Pete area where someone had walked with snow shoes. I suspect it was one of the northern birding guides or birders in the area, as a Boreal Chickadee was right next to the road and gave us all decent looks of a fairly skittish species.

We tried a couple of spots for woodpeckers but were unable to find any. It was quite cold outside and if you do not have adequate winter clothing it gets downright uncomfortable. Luckily for us the van stayed out of the ditch and started the entire trip. There were a couple of locations along Lake County 2 that had Black-backed Woodpecker reports, but instead we went down Lake County 1 and tried for them instead. In hindsight we could have tried the other, as we only found more Gray Jays, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, and Common Ravens as we made our way back to Highway 61 along Lake Superior. This species is the closest thing we had for a miss during the entire trip, but it is hard to call it a miss considering the little time we actually put forward on it.

Micky and Jennifer_2 Malcolm 2017-01-06 #01
We didn't find any Moose, just a Moose sign! The trees were covered!

We did not find anything scoping the lake at a couple of stops and made our way back to Two Harbors in search of Bohemian Waxwings. Pine Grosbeaks were throughout the town and a flock of house sparrows that contained a Eurasian Tree Sparrow. We were able to relocate the Bohemian Waxwings fairly quickly stopped to take pictures.

Bohemian Waxwing Bohemian Waxwings
A single bird landed close while the flock was often perched up high.

Mixed in with the Bohemian Waxwings were Pine Grosbeaks. This is the first instance that I can remember taking pictures of this species with any sun. Often winter is dominated by overcast skies.

Micky Grosbeaks Pine Grosbeak
Male and female Pine Grosbeaks (left) and male on the right.

Agate Bay did not contain any waterfall but did have it Thayer's Gull mixed in with the Herring Gulls. Leaving Two Harbors we had the decision similar to the week before with Kathy and Diane. Should we go after the Townsend Solitaire, the Golden Crowned sparrow, or Canal Park and gulls. This time we decided to try for the Golden Crown Sparrow and Canal Park. Just like last week we missed the Sparrow. Moreover there were no gulls at Canal Park. Micky and Jennifer got wonderful close views of American Black Ducks for comparisons with similar looking Mallards.

We ended the day a bit early and went out to eat with Kristina and Clinton. We talked for hours and it was wonderful to catch up with an friend. As much fun it is for me to watch birds and get others on life birds I value the memories shared and close friendship even more. During the conversations we were made aware of Northern Hawk Owl north of Red Lake. We had some planning to do that night. Little did we know that the next day would be perhaps the luckiest any of us have experienced with chasing birds.

Here are the "lifers" from our second day! 

Day 2

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Northern MN Birding: Thursday January 5th 2017

Map - Day 1
Click above photo or here for entire map.
After driving through the night, with small naps along the way, we arrived with an extra half an hour before first light! We grabbed a sandwich and filled the van with gas in Cloquet in preparation for all day in Sax-Zim bog on Thursday.

We drove back and forth a couple miles on either side of the Highway 133/ Highway 7 intersection looking for a Great Gray Owl at first light. This Owl was the main target bird for the day. As Jennifer described it, the owl was her biscuit and all other species were the gravy.  Without the Owl it would be tough to have an amazing day.  

The first birds of the day were Ruffed Grouse perched in the top of trees eating the buds. With almost no leaves on the trees these birds were really silhouetted. The Ruffed Grouse was the first lifer of the trip for both Jennifer and Micky, a term that birders use that refers to the first time they observe a particular species.

Micky - Ruffed Grouse 2 Micky - Ruffed Grouse 1
I poached photos from their Facebook pages to include in the blog posts.  These are Micky's photos of Ruffed Grouse.

A flock of birds flying over 133 caught our attention and we stopped to hear Red Crossbills, our third species for the trip after seeing a few flyover American Crows. We were unsuccessful with our morning search for the Great Gray Owl and shortly after sunrise I decided to focus on our search for our second target bird of the day, the Sharp-Tailed Grouse. We turned north along County Road 229 headed towards the visitor center checked out the lek, but were unable to find any. While the excitement of birding the first day still remained, internally I was a bit concerned that we were unable to see either of the two morning target species.

Before reaching the visitor center we had a few more birds fly over the road. They were the first of many Pine Grosbeaks that we would see on this trip. As we were looking at these birds White-Winged Crossbill flew over! The visitor center had our first Common Redpoll of the trip. A handful of other birds were on the feeders as well, include a Pine Siskin and Red-breasted Nuthatch. The Red Squirrels were a source of beauty and frustration, as I stopped many times hoping to find a bird but instead saw them sitting in the trees. 


We stopped at the Admiral Road feeder station to put out peanut butter with hopes of getting a boreal chickadee. Alas we heard no wheezy chickadee sounds but satisfied the swarm of Black-Capped Chickadees. At Mary Lou's feeders we had a flock of Evening Grosbeaks. This location is one of the most reliable locations in the Midwest, yet if you follow the Sax-Zim FB page you are aware of the stress that outsiders put on locals. It is an amazing testament to the work the Friends group and others have done to have such a wonderful relationship, that the homeowner allows visitors on the property to see these birds. We left a donation and went on our way. If you visit the area please be as respectful to everyone as possible, especially when on the roads as to not block access to any drive-ways nor the road itself.

Evening Grosbeak Evening Grosbeak
A male and female Evening Grosbeak.

We checked out McDavitt Road with an outside chance of finding a mid-day Great Gray Owl. Gray Jays and White-winged Crossbills crossed the road as we went back to the visitor center for lunch. The warmth of the heater allowed us an easier chance to get out of the car and walk around while watching the feeders. Checking the grouse lek in the afternoon yielded a hen Ring-necked Pheasant, but it was likely a released/escaped bird and was not the desired Galliformes species

Mid-afternoon we start our afternoon strategy of driving Admiral and McDavitt roads with hopes of finally finding a Great Gray Owl. On our second time around a local UPS driver give us a suggestion to try Kelsey Whiteface Road. After sunset and with last light quickly approaching we were unsuccessful there as well. I had conceded that we were going to miss Great Gray Owl and Sharp-tailed Grouse, my two target birds for the day.

After 5 o'clock we turned back onto 133 off of 7 to head back to Duluth. This was the same area we had searched at first light for almost an hour. As a major shock to all of us we saw a large bird perched on the top of a dead snag offering just a shape against the dark sky. We were very fortunate to see our main target bird! As we turned around the owl hopped down into the ditch to grab a meal. The bird looked at us in the headlights and offered us the only detailed view we would have. The Owl flew back to the closest perch and ate. We took a couple of pictures but quickly decided to keep going as total darkness had come over the land.

Great Gray Owl
Yes, yes it was that dark when we saw the bird.
I loved reading Jennifer's post about the day. "The one bird that was the icing on the cake alluded us all day., Great Grey Owl. We continued to have large flocks of White Winged Crossbills and Common Redpolls. We had Red Crossbills and still no Great Grey Owls. We were unable to find the Sharp Tailed Grouse and hope to try for them again. Friday takes us up north to search for Spruce Grouse, Three Toed Woodpecker, Black Backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee and Bohemian Waxwings. We have hopes of finding all of these, but they are extremely difficult to find. Oh and they Great Gray? We left the bog without seeing one until just as the last bit of light was fading, a silouhette in a tree as we were leaving.....Great Grey Owl! Lifer! We watched him fly down and catch his dinner in the snow and then fly to a nearby tree. As the darkness took over, we watched him fly away. My cake for the day was complete. This was the bird I had wanted to see for many years. As I sit in the hotel room in Duluth and revel in the day of six lifers, I once again I had a fabulous day with some of my favorite people to spend the day with and it doesn't matter that I have now been up for 36 hours. I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings. Oh by the way when we got to the Bog it was -20 and that did not include the wind chill. It warmed to a balmy -2 in the afternoon."

Here are the "lifers" from our first day!