Thursday, February 27, 2014

Wall Worthy

Despite single digit temperatures and gusting winds of 35-40 mph, I got out for about an hour on Wednesday afternoon. There was so much blowing snow that I almost didn't see this snowy owl sitting right off the edge of the road. I pulled off and managed to get this photo just as the owl took off. By far my favorite photo from this winter, this one may end up on a wall.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Coe Township, MI

Owling with Dad

Though my dad and I had gotten out owling once or twice over the holidays, we had only seen the birds from several hundred yards away. He had mentioned me that he would like to get out and get some closer shots of them, especially because he had just picked up his new toy, a Canon 300mm f/4 IS telephoto lens. So we decided to give it a shot this past weekend and roll north to the wind turbine region of mid-Michigan. On our way northward we swung through Maple River SGA to see if any snowies were still hanging around. I had seen one previously on February 3rd sleeping atop a barn in the early morning. We managed to see a few Northern Harriers, a Northern Shrike, some Snow Buntings, and hoards of Horned Larks. We continued to press north in Gratiot County and eventually hit some back roads in the vast expanse of wind turbines. We made a pass down a road where I had seen two snowies a few weeks earlier and came up empty, but as we turned around and headed back out the way we came in, I noticed a white blob sitting atop a telephone pole. Sure enough, it was a snowy.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) N Blair Road, Gratiot County, MI
This sleepy owl simply turned his head and gave us a squinting look. We shot a few quick photos of him and then moved on. We drove a little further north into Isabella County to an area where I had previously seen good numbers of owls. Around 4:30 PM, we turned down a road and noticed an owl sitting atop a bare pole. We got out of the car and fired away, getting much better photos of this owl than the one we had seen earlier.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Summerton Road, Rosebush, MI
The owl didn't seem to mind us at all until something distance caught its attention and it flew off into the adjacent agricultural field. We drove a little further east and saw one last owl just before sunset from about 200 yards away in an open field and called it a day. My dad was thrilled with the photos he got of the owl, and the trip was considered a success. It was a great way to spend a Saturday, and I hope we can do more photography stuff like this in the future.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

On the Hunt

We finally got some relatively warm weather here in Michigan, with temperatures rising above freezing for the first time in more than two months. I relished the opportunity to get out and enjoy the sun and warmth in the late afternoon for an hour or two. The area that I've seen snowy owls a lot this winter has become relatively absent as no sightings have been reported and a failed attempt over the weekend. Just across U.S. 127 there is another expanse of agricultural land less than two miles from my apartment which one owl was reported from, so I decided to go check it out. I noticed a white blob about 150 yards from the road and decided to pull off and take a look through my bins. Sure enough, it was a snowy. After a few minutes, the owl suddenly took off and started to fly in my direction. The initial, "Shit shit shit!" reaction caused me to fumble to get my camera lens cap off, luckily I managed to do so. I stooped low and got my lens on the bird. The owl only occasionally beat its powerful wings, gliding less than two feet off of the fresh blanket of snow. As the bird got closer, I was able to figure some nice shots, though not as spectacular as I was hoping for. The bird passed to my right overhead and then swooped low to grab something about fifty yards in the field behind me.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Isabella County, MI
The owl had obviously seen some small rodent from more than two hundred yards away, which is proof of their incredible eyesight. I love the above photo because you can see that the owl is zeroed in on its target, completely ignoring me and my lens. The bird ended up landing about a hundreds yards from the road in the field behind me and scarfed down its meal. It was pretty awesome to see one of these birds in action, as most of the ones I've seen this winter have been stationary. I decided to drive around a few others fields in the area and noticed another snowy on a utility pole right before sunset.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Isabella County, MI
Unfortunately a passing truck spooked the owl, but I was able to capture nice shot of the owl during takeoff. As we move towards the end of February, these owls will likely be making their departure from Michigan in the next few weeks as spring finally approaches. My dad and I are going to try and make a snowy trip this weekend so he can get some decent shots of them before they depart for good. Stay tuned...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cedar Waxwings

A large group of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were gorging themselves on crab apples today in the heart of CMU's campus. I counted roughly forty individuals, which were constantly flying from tree to tree. I was hoping there would be a stray Bohemian Waxwing amongst the group, but it was all cedars. It was nice to capture some photos of these birds, as I did not have any photos of them previously.

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), Isabella County, MI

Audubon Magazine: With So Many Snowies to Study, Scientists Are Discovering How Little We Know About This Bird

"We won't live long enough to see something like this again." That statement is probably true, what's happening this winter is a once in a lifetime type of event. It's no secret that the snowy owl irruption has been nothing short of astounding. Snowies have shown up across the country in record breaking numbers, even as far south as Bermuda and Florida. Audubon Magazine has posted a fantastic article about the invasion, which you can read on the Audubon Magazine website. So what's so different about this year, why have so many of these mystical birds descended from the Arctic for the winter?

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Gratiot County, MI
We know that snowy owls are nomadic, often traveling thousands of miles across the arctic to areas where lemming populations are booming. These booms in lemming populations are cyclical, often happening every three to five years. Good years for lemmings in turn are good years for snowies, allowing nesting pairs to raise several youngsters to young adulthood. According to scientists who study snow owls, the summer of 2013 was a banner year for lemmings, leading to huge colonies of breeding snowy owls. This, coupled with early, deep snow in the arctic has created a "perfect storm" which hasn't been seen in more than half a century.
A snowy rests in the agricultural tundra of Isabella County, MI.
Being a newbie birder, I remember reading about snowy owls back in November and remember thinking, "I really hope I get to see one this winter!" I guess I couldn't have chose a better winter to become interesting in birding, particularly with owls. There is something striking about these birds, something I can't quite describe. The way they slowly observe their surroundings and then take off with powerful, yet silent wing beats is something one must see for themselves. If you haven't done so already, bundle up, grab your binoculars and make an effort to go out and find one of these owls while they're still around. Many people I've talked to believe they will stick around until mid-March, but it all depends on how quickly things warm up. Check out local birding lists or eBird for local sightings and be sure to report any sightings you have to either one of these resources. That's all for now, I'll leave you with a few more snowy shots from the past month or so.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

February 3-4th: Waterfowl & Snowies

The days are getting longer, slowly...Part of me dies a little bit during the winter here. But birding has been able to alleviate some of the pain and get me behind the lens more than I would in the past. This past weekend, I spent some time birding with my dad for his birthday. We decided to check out the Huron River for stretches of open water in hopes of photographing some waterfowl. We arrived at a city park in Ann Arbor and immediately saw a wealth of ducks. We spent some time there and also spent some time just below a dam on the river.

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Island Park, Washtenaw County, MI
Redhead (Aythya americana), Island Park, Washtenaw County, MI
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), Island Park, Washtenaw County, MI
The Guy Who Inspired Me about Nature
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), Barton Dam, Washtenaw County, MI

Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) Island Park, Washtenaw County, MI
It was a fantastic day, anytime my dad and I can get out and shoot is great. The next morning I arose early and headed north. I swung through a state game area in hopes of seeing some shrikes and hopefully eagles. I however, spotted a completely different bird which had been hanging around the spot for a few weeks.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Immature Female, Gratiot County, MI
It was a pleasant surprise, making this the fourth county I've seen snowies in this winter. She looked half asleep, squinting from the bright morning sun reflecting off a fresh blanket of snow. I moved on around the area, trying to get close enough to a shrike to get a decent photo, I did not succeed. Shrikes are skittish little birds which quickly flee when approached. I did see one individual along a road, as well as a few skittish Rough-legged Hawks. I also managed to catch a glimpse of a male Northern Harrier perched at ground level before it flew off.

Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), Adult Male, Gratiot County, MI
It was a decent haul for a 20 minute swing through the area. Later on in the afternoon, I decided to drive out to some farm country because of the fantastic light to try and get some nicely lit photos of snowies. There is one particular agricultural area that is 1-2 square miles in size which has at least two snowies visiting. As I came up to a good road around 4:00 PM, I noticed a large white bird top a low utility pole.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Immature Female, Isabella County, MI

I wish I wouldn't have been as tight as I was when she flushed, as this photo would have been truly wonderful had I been zoomed out a bit, but the result is still nice I think. She flew over the horizon I disappeared, I would see her about an hour later but didn't stop to bother her. I drove a little further down the road, and spotted another owl sitting atop the same antenna I saw one utilizing back on January 21st, which you can read about in the blog post Sunset in Snowy Country.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Immature Male, Isabella County, MI
It's amazing how much of a difference good lighting can make when photographing these birds. At first I was pretty sure this was the same bird I saw a few weeks ago, but less then 100 yards down the road I spotted another owl sitting atop a large silo.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), Immature Male, Isabella County, MI
I was pretty astounded to see three snowies utilizing a fairly small area, food must be abundant. It was a fantastic way to close an awesome two day stretch and to get behind the lens. February usually marks the last majorly harsh winter weather we have, as I've seen tiger salamanders in the first week of March the past two years. Though that doesn't mean the same will go for this year. Here's to the approaching warmer weather, though these owls are pretty awesome for now. Until next time...