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 ūüėČ 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).

Long time…

25 01 2010

GH Owl- Matt Thomas

Is it just me or is January the most miserable time of year (I am writing this on a day with 30mph winds and steady sheets of rain). It always seems to take me ages to recover from Christmas (a wonderful time spent in London visiting with family and friends old and new, including my friend Peter’s beautiful new baby girl). Anyway there always seems to be a lag in time recovering from being back in the old country and feeling settled back into life here in the states. That’s my excuse for doing nothing with the blog for a while anyway. It also doesn’t help that January is not my favorite time of year for birding. Although I compile the Big January for Connecticut I have to say that having done one once I pretty much vowed never to do it again. I just can’t handle the endless ‘on the go’ pace of the whole thing – more power to those like Tina, Meredith and Sara who throw themselves into the spirit of the thing with gusto – I don’t know how they find the energy!

Anyway this weekend I was back out on the birding trail running a daytime owl prowl. Now as it is owls are hard enough to find even at the best of times but to get to see them during the day it really takes some serious scouting. I basically spent the majority of the week pulling in favors, begging people like AJ who is something of an owl expert and aficionado for tips and traipsing through pine woodlands looking for traces of owl activity. For the most part I was finding a lot of owl sign and not a lot of owls. You also have the misery of owls that you have staked out suddenly deciding to move on just before the day of the walk. Pretty stressful all in all!

It’s all worth it though when you manage to get to the end of a walk with 5 pretty decent owl sightings under your belt. The day started fairly auspiciously when at the first stop a mob of Blue Jays were squawking intimidatingly around the group of pines I was hoping to see our first Barred Owl in. Sure enough these mobbing birds were onto our quarry much quicker than we were and as we watched their frantic behavior a, thus far, hidden Barred Owl dropped out of the trees and flew off for what it hoped would be a quieter pine to roost. Whilst all the time harassed by the baying corvid mob! As I explained to the group, mobbing birds can be your friends and on a number of occasions they have led me towards an owl camouflaged from a mere human’s eye. With a couple more excellent flyby views under our belts as the bird flew this way and that to lose his pursuers (the jays – not us) we left the owl to deal with his tormentors.

A few more stops yielded some successes and some failures: another Barred Owl perched in some coastal tangles ( but not the Long-eareds that had been hoped for) that provided us with the chance to study the contents of one of the owls pellets and to see the tell-tale whitewash signature that denotes a regular roost. A couple of Great Horned Owls were already getting set up for the serious business of starting a new family for the year, and we had beautiful views of the North-Easts most diminutive owl: the Northern Saw-whet, a bird that one only really encounters in the state in migration and winter.

All in all a pretty successful trip and one that though tough to organize, was all the more rewarding in its success. This year has been a fairly tough one for owls it seems, with very few reports of diurnal owls such as Short-eared and Snowy. Although not reportable in CT, the word on the grapevine is that Long-eared sightings are fewer and farther between than recent years as well. Perhaps the abundance of natural food this year has lead to a corresponding boom in their prey numbers to our north and they just don’t feel the same need to roam south. A good thing for the owls but not so good for your prospective owl hunter!

Thanks to Matt Thomas for the kind loan of a couple of his shots from the trip – thanks for sharing.

Trip Sightings: Barred Owl (2), Great Horned Owl (2), Northern Saw-whet Owl (1).

Others: Canada Goose, Mallard, Ring-necked Duck, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, European Starling, Eastern Towhee, American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow.

Saw-whet Owl Banding

17 11 2009

Saw-whet Owl - Luke Tiller

It has taken a while to rescue my camera from New York City where I left it after an evening out with my ex-flatmate Tabitha, so hence the delay in cute photo’s from the banding trip. New York was as entertaining as always and it was great to catch up with one of the gang from London. As much as I love London, and all of my friends there, it’s hard to imagine moving back to that or to any other city for that matter, as I am not sure how I would manage to get my daily fix of nature living in a concrete jungle. Saying that though, I can’t quite imagine ever wanting to be so far from civilization that I could move right into the middle of nowhere and live in the woods or the desert or something, so perhaps the ‘wilds’ of Fairfield County strike something of the perfect balance.

Anyway on to the owls. I was joined for the evening by blogger and artist birdspot (as she had her eye on some cool owl photos for her latest artwork). The initial excitement of the evening however was being sorely tested by the traffic out of the city on a Friday night and we were running late for the first check of the banding nets by the time we were even on the road for New Paltz. After some horrendous traffic we made an unsavory stop at the Roy Rogers on the New York Thruway (fries vaguely edible, most everything else almost unpalatable) and filled up on food and gas before striking out into deepest and definitely darkest New York State. I always call the area upstate New York, but to me anything north of Westchester qualifies as upstate so who knows what the right term really is.

Anyway, after managing to miss out on the banding last year, thanks to downpours over the final weekend, I was really looking forward to getting to go along and see some birds. After an aborted plan to visit the prior weekend (unsavory weather) we were finally (albeit rather tardily ) heading on our way to hopefully see owls. I rushed off a quick call to Chrissy from the service station and found out that thankfully we hadn’t missed out on anything on their first run around the owl nets. As we crossed into New Paltz and took the roads up into the Mohonk Preserve I called Chrissy to have her talk us through the final twists and turns of the directions and found out that by now they had one of those little cuties in their clutches and that if we were there in the next few minutes then we might get to see one of the owls before they finished processing the bird and let it go.

Anyway after a little bit of nifty driving, we were there at the small hut that was owl banding headquarters. Squeezed into the little shack were the banding team, a couple of eager visitors and one exceptionally cute little owl – the first capture of the night. We got to ooh and ahh a little before the owl was taken outside to be released. During release, the bird is given a couple of minutes, sat in one of the banders hands, for its eyes adjust to the dark before it is released. With an almost silent flutter it was off back towards the black tangle of tree limbs, ready to resume its nightly activities.

We learned a lot over the evening and eagerly watched the banders as they jotted down the birds ages, took down various measurements of size and weight and a couple of DNA samples. They also removed, collected and studied the various pests which call the birds home. It was fascinating to see how the birds are successfully aged (including an amazing example of how a black light can determine the age of feathers – new ones glow bright orange under the UV). The banding station was part of two, one in the Mohonk Hills and another comparative site down in the more suburban settings of the college, which was allowing them to compare the little owls migration habitat preferences. To find out more on banding check out Chrissy’s various posts on 10,000 birds. You can also find out more about Saw-whet banding across North America at Project Owlnet

I have to say that while it was fascinating to watch the guys busy at work banding (we had about 20 owls over the course of a couple of hours) I was at first reluctant when offered the chance to let one of the little birds go. Not because their occasional bill snapping was reminding me of the time I got a good hard bite from a banded Blue-headed Vireo on Block Island, but just because I didn’t want to get in the way of the banders work. Anyway after a little cajoling I finally decided I’d have a go at releasing one of the birds.

Watching birds is an amazing experience but holding them really is something else. Having rescued a few birds from the gardeners nets in Allen’s Meadows, and having been banding a couple of times over my life it really is quite amazing to have them up so close, look into their eyes and feel their warmth and the amazing softness of their feathers. The owl was the same. I’ve learned from past experience that the key to holding birds is that you need to be careful, but firm so that they don’t try to move around too much. So with my fingers locked over his legs and my hand smoothing down his back, in a way I hoped would be somewhat comforting, I took the bird outside for release. I waited for the little guys eyes to adjust to the light for a couple of minutes and then eased my grip on the owls little legs. At first nothing, almost as if he didn’t realize he was now a free bird,¬† but then within a few seconds a little flick of the wings and the lightweight owl was fluttering up and off back to the safety of cover – an unbelievable moment and one that will stay with me (like so many birding experiences) forever.

You can click the tags at the bottom to find more of my posts on Saw-whets and I hope that birdspot will be posting some of her beautiful sketches from the evening on her blog soon.

EDIT: See birdspots incredible saw-whet owl drawing inspired by the evening (here).

Northern Saw-whet Owl – Another look!

19 03 2009
Northern Saw-whet Owl - AJ Hand

Northern Saw-whet Owl - AJ Hand

The latest bird reports are pretty depressing so I thought I’d cheer everyone up (including myself) with a picture that AJ Hand snapped of the Saw-whet Owl that I found on my Sunrise Bird Walk in Westport over the last weekend (it had left by the next day). I wonder how many of you eagle-eyed birders noticed the little mouse/vole clutched in it’s talons before I mentioned it (you can spot the paw) . I’m guessing the mouse was the only one not thrilled to see this bird at the weekend! Thanks to AJ Hand for the loan of the picture – another really stunning capture.

Sunrise Bird Walk – March 15

15 03 2009
N. Saw-whet Owl - Michael Ferrari

N. Saw-whet Owl - Michael Ferrari

So much for my titling today’s walk ‘Spring Awakening’, apart from a load of raucous blackbirds there was little to make one think of spring and a cool and damp morning wasn’t setting much of a mood either. We started at Grace Salmon Park in Westport but without much sign of egrets or the shorebird or two that I had hoped for. OK there were a couple of Killdeer but it’s a stretch to think of them as shorebirds as they are seemingly just as happy mooching about on gravel parking lots at the Wilton Market as they are anywhere else in the world. The only birds of ‘note’ were some Pine Siskins, but after this year it’s hard to think of them as uncommon within the state.

Next stop was a quick one at Compo Beach where we were surprised by the sheer wealth of waterfowl on show.¬† There were a number of large flocks of Greater Scaup (I pointed out identification of the wing pattern to the group when the birds stretched their wings), hundreds of milling Long-tails and good sized numbers of many other species such as Red-breasted Mergansers, Horned Grebes and Brant. The pick of the gulls loitering offshore was a ‘Kumlien’s’ Iceland Gull which gave the group a good session on identification. Many of the group found the apparent darkness of the primaries surprising for a ‘white-winged’ gull although the name seemed more appropriate with nice flight views. We also went over the theories as to whether the gull is a subspecies or hybrid – answers on a postcard please gull experts. A brief explanation (here), at the present the AOU treats Kumlien’s as as a subspecies of Iceland Gull.

Over at Sherwood Mill Pond the ducks continued to impress with a large mixed Wigeon/Gadwall flock (no sign of the Eurasian). Sherwood Island itself was pretty quiet apart from offshore where a few flotillas of Red-throated Loons and Horned Grebes as well as continuing ducks, many just offshore, were pretty impressive. The cool air and glassy water made viewing conditions almost perfect apart from a little fogginess further out. The only other bird of note a Greater Yellowlegs that certainly appeared to be a recent migrant  arriving from the south as it circled the marsh for a while deciding where to put down.

A quick coffee break (at which we added a calling Red Shouldered Hawk – right over Rt 1) and a few more spots and more waterfowl (I wonder if I am the only birder who has fantasized about one day birding the length of Rt 1 on one long crazy road trip – David Sibley meets Jack Kerouac style). Although we’d had some excellent views of some nice birds the tour would have not been the same had it not been for a fortunate spot as we explored a couple of local cedar/pine stands. I spotted a few large splashes of telltale whitewash and as I followed the wash up the branches there was perched a cute little Northern Saw-whet Owl. At 8 inches this really is one super cute little bird. As I’ve said before it’s always a thrill to find these birds and the first flash of those little eyes as you spot them gives one an unbelievable rush.¬† The group all had great looks at what was a life bird for a few involved and a treat for everyone. The group all took turns to have a minute or so with the little beauty and after a few memento shots we left him to his morning snooze.

It’s amazing how one bird can really make a morning out special, so even on the dreariest of days out (not that today was one) I always try to make sure to not let my head drop and keep looking at every bird, as you never know when that great bird might show up. I always remember that finding the Harris’s Sparrow at Allen’s was basically down to a last second change of plan after a disappointing soundwatch at Burying Hill Beach. I almost drove straight past Allen’s on the way home but decided to give it a quick try and make up for the rather fruitless morning. Always worth reminding yourself when you are out that with a little luck the next great bird might be just around the corner (or sat in the next tree!)

Trip Species List: Canada Goose, Brant, Mute Swan, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Hooded Merganser,¬† Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Bonaparte’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, KUMLIEN’S ICELAND GULL, Great Black-backed Gull,¬† Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Monk Parakeet, GREAT-HORNED OWL, NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Fish Crow, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren,¬† American Robin,¬†European Starling, American Tree Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common¬† Grackle, PINE SISKIN, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

Sunrise Bird Walk – Norwalk Feb 28

28 02 2009
Saw-whet Owl - AJ Hand

Saw-whet Owl - AJ Hand

An enjoyable mornings ‘work’ in Norwalk with some of the regular gang. Nothing majorly exciting¬† on the day but it always seems to be a fun morning out. Amongst a wealth of ducks, a couple of LESSER SCAUP were a bonus in Norwalk Harbor.

We had a few more cool ducks on the day and I assume there must be some staging up going on pre-migration, as the harbor in Norwalk was packed with Bufflehead.  Over on 14 Acre Pond we had great looks at a few Green-winged Teal and a rather novel (for the site) Common Merganser sitting on this shallow little pool.

Probably the highlight of the walk though was a Pileated Woodpecker over in Weston that put on quite the show for us as it flew in and proceeded to drum on an obviously favored dead branch for some minutes in absolutely perfect light, just a few feet away from us (see Mike’s photo below). It was either that or the glimpses we had of a nesting Great Horned Owl that we came upon.

To round off the walk we stopped for lunch at the rather fantastic SoNo Bakery for sandwiches, soups and cakes. It’s always a nightmare to get a seat in there but the food is well worth the wait.

Pileated Woodpecker - Michael Ferrari

Pileated Woodpecker - Michael Ferrari

Post walk I took Tina’s offer of a ride up to Watertown to see the Northern Shrike that Greg Hanisek found. This was a particularly handsome adult bird and although we had to wait a while for the bird to put in an appearance, there was plenty to enjoy while we waited including an adult Bald Eagle, a few calling Pheasant and some newly arrived? Killdeer.

I have to say shrikes in general are high up on my list of favorite bird species. I also love those northern boreal birds¬† as they just seem so romantic, so it’s always cool to see a Northern Shrike as it combines both elements. It was a life bird for Tina and a year bird for me so there were high fives all around. It seems like they have been particularly thin on the ground this season after last winters irruption so it was cool to get one in the bag.

After the Northern Shrike, we were all set to head home when we decided on a whim to swing by Westport and just see what was around. We managed to find one of the Eurasian Wigeons down on the Sherwood Island Mill Pond, (Frank Mantlik had reported two earlier in the week) in amongst a raft of 100 or so Gadwall and American Wigeon. Another quick stop produced probably the highlight bird of the day and a most unexpected surprise, a Saw-whet Owl!

Last year I had convinced myself that I had become gods gift at finding these super cool little owls but this winter I had completely struck out thus far. Owl finding is a great leveler in that no matter how good you think you are getting at finding them, it is never easy and always seems to need a little luck. This one was a case of looking in just the right spot,  following the white-wash trail and there it was. A quick call to my friend AJ Hand produced the stunning photo above.

A neat bird and a real thrill to find. Plenty of discussion on owls on the CTBirding list but in keeping with the current rules there are no details on the location. Today though was proof positive though that there is nothing better than the thrill of stumbling on your own owl discovery, spinetingling!

Trip Species List: Horned Grebe, Red-throated Loon, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Brant, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, LESSER SCAUP, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, Long-tailed Duck, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, GREAT-HORNED OWL, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, PILEATED WOODPECKER, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, Blue Jay, Fish Crow, American Crow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Common  Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, House Sparrow