“Owl Eyes”: An Essay

Hark, a blog post! (Man, remember when I used to post three times a week? Crazy.) Last spring I sat down and wrote an essay about a wildlife encounter I had on the Saskatchewan prairie the summer after I graduated from college. It was my first real dabble into “literary” writing in years, and after submitting it around and racking up a pile of rejection emails, I’ve admitted to myself that it’s not likely to get published for real. However, I hate to just leave it wasting away on my hard drive, so here it is. If you like owls and have time for a 1500-word essay of questionable literary merit… keep reading. Continue reading

Owl Pellets

If you saw these gray blobs on the ground under a tree, would you recognize them for what they are?

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I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t – and not only am I birder, but at one point I actually lived in a building that doubled as a raptor rehab center and had a number of resident owls in enclosures in the yard, so I really have no excuse. These are owl pellets, retrieved from under the tree in front of the building where I work, after my boss clued me in to the fact that they were there. As I’m sure everyone reading this already knows, after an owl eats a meal (often whole), it later harfs up all the undigestible bits like fur and bone in a compacted pellet. I have never, to the best of my knowledge, stumbled across pellets from wild owls like this before, but it seems likely I’ve walked right past them in the woods without seeing them.

Not having dissected an owl pellet since I was a kid (and even then, probably only ones from captive owls with controlled diets), I carried these home and ripped them apart to see what our local wild owls have been eating. Continue reading

Owl #3

Yes, one last post about the owls I saw on my Sax-Zim Bog trip. Like the Great Gray I posted about last Friday, I saw my third and final owl species not in the bog itself, but in the Duluth area.

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This was Sunday afternoon, the same day that we saw four Great Gray Owls in one morning. We only saw one of these, but one was enough to bask in its awesomeness: the Northern Hawk Owl! (Or Northern Hawk-owl. I’ve seen it both ways.)

Hawk-owls get their name from the fact that they’re, well, a bit hawkish. See that long tail? In flight this bird looks almost more like an accipiter (like, say, a Cooper’s Hawk) than an owl. They’re active during the day, hunting prey from conspicuous perches at the very tops of trees, like a kestrel or a shrike. Like the Boreal and the Great Gray, this is primarily an owl of the great northern forests, both in North America and Eurasia.

Someone gave me directions to a field just a half a mile out of my way on my drive home that was supposed to be another hawk-owl hot spot. I didn’t see any owls, but I did find another car slowly cruising along the country road. I could resist pulling up next to him and saying “Hey, are you looking for hawk-owls too?”, which of course he was. Got to love birders. (At first when I pulled up next to him and rolled my window down, I don’t think he was sure what to expect. I am not a demographically typical birder. I think I may have been the only woman under thirty at the festival.)

This concludes the tale of my Sax-Zim Bog trip. That means it’s time to start planning my next birding adventure… anyone up for lekking prairie chickens in April?

Owl #2

The unofficial mascot of Sax-Zim Bog, the bird everyone goes there to see, is the Great Gray Owl.

I did not see a Great Gray Owl on Friday evening. I did not see a Great Gray Owl on Saturday. Sunday, I was signed up to spend the day birding in the Duluth area rather than in the bog itself, and hope was fading. But was we headed up toward the lakeshore, we came across a couple cars stopped by the edge of the road. (You’ve heard of “bear jams” in Yellowstone? Duluth in winter apparently has “owl jams.”) There, sitting at the top of a small evergreen tree not one hundred feet from the road, was North America’s largest owl.

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It was beautiful. It was so exciting. But while we were admiring this big beautiful bird, someone suddenly called out, “Hey guys, look! There’s another one right here across the road, and it’s even closer!” And then a minute later, “Here’s another one around the corner!”

Great Gray Owl

Check out that white mustache! Like some other predators, Great Gray Owls hunt primarily based on sound, and can hear small rodents moving through tunnels under the snow. We actually witnessed one dive off its perch and into the snow, although I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of this and we couldn’t see whether it caught anything. Also, while this is one of the world’s largest owls in terms of height, it is definitely not the heaviest – that volume is mostly feathers.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, by FunkMonk.

Later in the morning we spotted a fourth one. At that point we didn’t even bother to get off the bus. We just admired it through the windows for a moment and kept going, looking for new species to add to our list. And that is the story of how I saw four Great Gray Owls in one day.

To be continued…

Owl #1, Post #500

By far the birds I was most excited to see at Sax-Zim Bog were the owls. Who doesn’t love owls??? However, by mid-day on Saturday I was beginning to feel a little pessimistic. The Friday evening search for Great Gray Owls at dusk had proved fruitless, and today our guide seemed to be doing his best to let us down gently. “Yeah, the Great Grays haven’t been nearly as reliable this year as they usually are. They’ve been a lot harder to find.” “There’s only been one hawk-owl reported in the bog all winter. We’ll look for one but it’s not too likely.” What if I went home at the end of the weekend without having seen a single nocturnal raptor? That would be so embarrassing.

Then this happened.

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Do you see the owl? It’s there, I promise. When a couple of photographers told us what they’d found – in a tree right by the edge of the road, with orange flagging tape around its trunk, no less – we couldn’t believe it. (“You wouldn’t believe how long it took us to train that bird to sit in the tree with the flagging tape so we could find it,” quipped the guide.)

Boreal Owl

Yes, it’s a Boreal Owl! These awesome little denizens of the north country are about ten inches tall and usually spend the day well-concealed in the woods, but ours had ventured into the open. Our bus radioed the location to the other buses full of birders cruising the bog and soon the whole stretch of road was lined with owl paparazzi.

019 (1024x685)What’s good news for birders is unfortunately not good news for the bird. The fact that it was alert and out in the open in the middle of the day probably means that this bird was under stress and not finding enough food during its normal hunting times. This is often the case with the owl irruptions we birders love so much – last winter’s amazing influx of Snowy Owls in the U.S. was a sign that there wasn’t enough food for them in their regular range to the north.

Still, I cannot tell a lie, getting such a spectacular look at such an amazing and seldom-seen bird really made my day. And that was only the first owl of the weekend… to be continued!

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Also, on an unrelated note: this marks my 500th post on Rebecca in the Woods. When I began blogging three years ago I was just doing it as a fun project for myself, because I enjoy taking pictures and writing. I had no idea where it would lead me – to becoming a published freelance writer, to doing a graduate project on social media and environmental education, and more. The community I’ve found online has genuinely enriched my life (I feel corny typing that, but it’s true), and I just want to say thank you to every single person who takes the time to read, like, comment, and share. You rock!

Nemesis Bird, Defeated!

I’ve been wanting to see a Burrowing Owl for years. Years. I’ve had a long series of near-misses, never quite managing to be in the right place at the right time to lay eyes on one. Well, no more.

Yep, the brown dot circled in red is an owl hunkered down at the entrance of its burrow at the Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler, Arizona. It was keeping a wary eye on the female Northern Harrier patrolling the area, and at one point when the harrier swooped directly over the owls’ mound it scurried back into the opening. It was fun to watch.

I’m taking advantage of the free wifi in the Phoenix airport to write this while I wait for my plane to start boarding. When I get back to northern Wisconsin tonight I should find three inches of snow on the ground waiting for me. About time!

A Story Told Through Sound

I have never before experimenting with using audio clips in a blog post, but the story of last night can only be told with the assistance of sound. Around sunset, my roommate and I left our apartment to go for a walk with the goal of hearing a very specific spring sound. As we started down the path, the woods were filled with the calls of spring peepers.

Finally the trail came out at the edge of a low, boggy area, thick with tamaracks. We couldn’t go any farther, but from within the bog issued the sound we’d been hoping for – the peent, peent, peent of woodcocks.

If you listen closely to the recording, after the peenting stops you can hear the high twittering of a woodcock’s display flight – that sound is actually made by air rushing through the bird’s primary feathers – followed by his chirps as he tumbles to the ground, and then the peents start up again. The woodcocks circled in the air above us, silhouetted against the sky, where a tiny new crescent moon was joined by Jupiter and Venus. There is no surer sign of spring than displaying woodcocks.

At one point while we were watching this show, a Barred Owl called in the distance. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” (The Barred Owl starts calling about ten seconds into this clip.)

Hearing any owl in the woods at night is great, but I commented to my roommate that what I’d really like to see or hear more than anything else was a saw-whet owl. I’d never had an encounter with one of the captivating, tiny soda-can-sized owls, and I know they breed here.

As we were walking back along the driveway to our house, talking quietly, I gradually registered another sound in the distance mixed in with the ubiquitous peepers: a soft “toot, toot, toot, toot…” I stopped short, gaping at my roommate. “Do you hear that?! That’s a saw-whet owl calling, isn’t it? Oh my God! It is!”

So, yup, lifer Northern Saw-whet, a bird I’ve been dying to add to my life list for years. I was still bouncing around the apartment half an hour later. I really like living on the edge of almost 20,000 acres of pristine Northwoods wilderness. I know that someday I’ll probably have to live in a town like a normal person, so I’d better enjoy it while it lasts.

Edit: To be clear, I did not make the recordings used in this post. They are all from soundcloud.com.

Owl Attitudes

As I type this I’m sitting on the balcony of my house, enjoying a truly beautiful spring evening.  My “house,” which I share with three other interns, is actually the top two floors of a building that’s also a raptor rehabilitation center, and the balcony overlooks the cages housing our permanent-resident Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks, among others.  The outside area where the permanent residents are on display is open to the public, which occasionally gets interesting.

Earlier this afternoon I was in my bedroom when I heard a very persistent “Hoo!  Hoo!  Hoo!  Hoo!” outside my window.  Now, one of the perks of living here is falling asleep every night to the calls of Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls, but this was neither.  This was a man trying to entice our Barred Owls into doing something amusing to entertain his children, the auditory equivalent of tapping on the glass.  (For the record, a Barred Owl call actually sounds roughly like “WHO COOKS for YOU?  WHO COOKS for YOU-all?”, not “Hoo!  Hoo!  Hoo!  C’mon, hoo!”)  However, never let it be said that owls don’t have a sense of humor.  Our pair of Barred Owls remained silent the whole time this family was standing in front of their cage, but as soon as the pesky humans had moved on (to antagonize the Screech Owls on the far side of the building, no doubt) the two of them started up a loud and impressive racket.  The man and his children immediately hightailed it back to the Barred Owl cage… at which point they immediately fell silent again.  Ha!

At the moment the pair of Red-tailed Hawks are working on the nest they’re attempting to build on the platform in their cage.  It’s a noble effort, really.