Who hates ducks?

7 04 2011

Oldsquaw - Luke Tiller

Out on Lake Ontario as well as getting to see some cool birds I am also getting to see some cool plumages. Back in Connecticut I have never knowingly seen an adult male breeding plumaged Long-tailed Duck. Here they are  dotted around amongst the birds that are still in basic plumage. Hard to believe that those stunning Long-tails in their mainly white finery are actually in their dowdy non-breeding garb. The other day I said that I sometimes joke about hating ducks. I definitely don’t hate Oldsquaw (or Long-tailed Duck to give them their politically correct but less characterful new name) in either their winter or summer finery. It’s just hard to decide which of the two is prettier!

Saw-whet musings etc…

6 04 2011

Saw-whet Owl - Luke Tiller

It was a slow day at the hawkwatch, after a bright warm start the clouds settled in, the air cooled and it robbed me of any afternoon flight. I decided to cut my losses and head home and save my energy for tomorrow. Still it was pretty early in the day, so I decided to go and have a wander around some local spots and see what, if anything, I could add to my Big Green Big Year list (here).

Over at the hawkwatch I had managed to pick up my first Blue-winged Teal of the season (about 4 drakes and two hens) and I thought I might be able to pick up others on the Manitou Beach Road side of the bay.  No joy, and I still haven’t even managed to get Green-winged out this side of the bay yet either – perhaps Teal will be my bogey duck? The hike down to Breakers could have been a complete wash were it not for happening upon a Caspian Tern that was cruising up the creek. Still with that and the Red-throated Loon from Ontario Beach Rd I am at least steadily accumulating for the season, and I am up to Two Fat Ladies as they say in bingo (88).

As I was right there already, I decided it was at least worth a little wander through Owl Woods to see what I could find there. A Long-eared would be nice – I think it’s time to give up on the dreams of finding a Boreal 😉 No Long-eareds today but Saw-whets were again easy to find. I tried to get a couple of digiscoped shots with my recently returned Swarovski Scope, not exactly Nat Geo material but a visual memory of the occasion at least.

I have noticed that things have gotten kind of heated about some of the goings on at Owl Woods recently and it was nice to see that BBRR have posted some guidelines about both looking for and photographing owls. Out of interest he ABA birding ethics guidelines can be found here (note the constant reference to the best interests of the bird!) I spend most of my year in Connecticut, and the listserve there has outright banned the posting of nocturnal owl sightings due to questionable birder and photographer behavior. It leads to something of difficult situation whereby beginners who are not very experienced at looking for owls get frustrated by the fact that they don’t  get them reported. Anyway, it makes me more aware of how lucky local birders are up here in Rochester that these birds get posted to the listserve.

That said I don’t believe there is a right to know about bird sightings and the more thoughtless behavior that birders observe at Owl Woods, the less likely I imagine they are to share their sightings. Although it can be difficult, I think it’s really incumbent on people to say something (politely) if they see things that they believe are overstepping the mark (moving or even removing branches for better shots of the birds is pretty obviously not on!). It’s possible that people just aren’t aware of the stresses they are placing on the birds, so if you say something do think carefully about how to say it tactfully.


Saw-whet Owl - Luke Tiller

Today I managed to fairly easily find two Saw-whets at the woods. In both of these shots I was digiscoping the birds from a fair distance, but as you can see they are aware of my presence. Once I found them I backed off to a distance to let them settle back down and even avoided going to search through another set of trees, as I would have had to squeeze past one of these birds. I took a couple of shots and was out of their vicinity within a minute or two. It’s always such a great experience to see an owl, but I strongly believe it’s incumbent on us to make sure that we don’t disturb them while we enjoy them.  Owl Woods is a really magical place, I hope it stays that way and that people continue to feel comfortable sharing their sightings from these amazingly productive little woods.

Just because my owl pictures are so amateur, I thought I’d share one my friend AJ took in Westport CT which he loaned me for my blog before (here). He actually didn’t like this shot very much – shows you how good his best ones are!!!! You can find more of his owl (and other bird) pictures from Sherwood Island in the links on the side of the page. You can also read about the time I went owl banding (here) and see some of the great sketches my friend Birdspot produced from the trip (here).

Bigby Snowy Owl

1 04 2011

Snowy Owl - Ed Sailer

My first twitch of the season! When I heard that there was Snowy Owl hanging out on the docks by the old Breakers Restaurant off of Manitou Beach Road, just half a mile from the house, I could hardly not go. As I have said before on this blog, twitching is not really for me, but I wasn’t going to not go see a Snowy Owl just ten minutes walk from the house. After I stopped in to see the bird on the way home, I drove back to the house before hiking back over to see the guy all over again for my Big Green Big Year. Probably the second rarest bird seen so far this year after the Barrow’s Goldeneye, but to most people a little more exciting! Friends of mine sometimes pull my leg for the time I told everyone that  I hate ducks 😉

From here on anything I say in this post that is complete and utter rubbish is completely and utterly my fault for misinterpreting what Tom said.

After a few people had put out phone calls to get people to see the bird, one of the local Braddock Bay Raptor Research banders, Tom McDonald, took a shot at recapturing this bird (he’d actually caught it earlier in the season). Whilst we waited to see if the owl would take the bait, I got to talk to Tom about Snowy Owls and banders. There isn’t much Tom doesn’t know about Snowies, having caught and banded many hundreds over the years, probably as many as any bander in the US (or even the world?). He’s currently working on a book all about the birds and I was lucky enough to see some of the plates that he was working on – looks like it’ll be a pretty cool tome.

So with  Tom cornered whilst we waited to see if the bird would take the trap bait, I finally got an answer to the one question that has always flummoxed me when it came to Snowy Owls. I remember being told by a number of birders that the Snowy Owls that we would see in Connecticut each winter were basically birds that had been pushed a long way from their usual territory, were in poor shape and likely to never make the return journey to the Arctic to breed but rather end their days dying emaciated in those ‘southerly’ climes.

I have often wondered whether this rather tragic view of these individuals is one of the reasons people seem to get so fired up about anyone (read photographers) putting pressure  on birds when they show up in the state. After all Snowy Owls are pretty much  just as happy being active diurnally as they are nocturnally, unlike the other owls that get equally harassed by photographers and birders who seem to have never even heard of the ABA code of ethics. Now not that I want to give photographers a pass on crummy behavior, but in talking to Tom this image of the doomed Snowy seems to be a common but incorrect assumption of these wandering individuals. Personally it never really made sense to me that an emaciated bird that was struggling to find food would even make it down as far as Connecticut if it really was starving. Why travel all that way to die, when traveling takes energy!

It seemed only logical to me that there must be a successful strategy being worked on for the birds to head all that way to Southern New England.  Just to make it that far requires a heap load of energy, so they must be doing something right along the way. Also when I have had time to spend some time with some of these individual roaming Snowies, like the bird at Piermont Pier (which was hanging out with and providing scraps for the Ivory Gull), or the one from Norwalk – which pretty much kicked off this blog (here) they seemed to be hunting very successfully thank you very much.

Tom says that his banding studies reflect this state of affairs as well, and that he has very rarely trapped emaciated birds around Rochester. All raptors can struggle to find food, but most of the birds he finds are rather in rude health like the bird in the shot above (Any birding chums want to take a shot at aging and sexing the bird?) which weighed in at over 1600 grams.  In fact birds that are found to be starving are usually young birds that never really seem to make it that far from the nesting site, not the ones that have traveled a long way.

Talking to Tom it’s easy to understand his awe for these birds, the passion and reverence that he obviously has for them. They are incredibly successful hunters that take a variety of prey and this particular bird was sitting by the remains of a number of carcasses including a Ring-billed Gull, and Tom told me that he has known them take a swipe at something as large as a Canada Goose. He also talked about his many adventures chasing round looking for them on their breeding grounds or simply sitting quietly ,studying their amazing interactions and hunting techniques with a nightvision scope!

Anyway it is good to know that these birds that one sometimes hears (from generally reliable sources) are doomed are rather not quite as doomed as commonly suggested, but are almost certainly following a tried and tested migratory pattern to get through the winter season. It was amazing to talk to Tom about the birds as it’s always a treat to converse with someone who really knows so much and is so passionate about an individual species, and individual species don’t come much more exciting and inspiring than a Snowy Owl. Thanks also to Edward Sailer for the pictures.