Friday, February 22, 2008

Flashback Friday: Wintery Gray Is Beautiful

Birding, especially when "chasing" a specific bird, is very much hit-or-miss. You might find exactly what you are looking for, or you might come up empty. I accept that in birding, it's part of the challenge. I have a hard time accepting that, however, when looking for files on our computer. They should be there, it shouldn't be a crap shoot whether they appear or not. I only mention this because I spent much of this week drafting a Flashback, and now I can't find the images from that trip anywhere on our hard drive. So, I'm putting off the post I prepared and will go with another trip, a search that did not come up empty.

Dateline: 12 February 2005, Enterprise, ON, Canada
My wife is not a birder. She is a botanist by training, an ecologist at heart, and loves the outdoors as much as the next naturalist. Don't get me wrong, she likes birds, and our arguments over what are more important, plants or birds, are mostly minor. She's more than happy to go on a bird walk, but we hear that term differently: I hear "bird walk," she simply hears, "walk."

But that all changes when it comes to a chase. Donna is nothing if not tenacious, and thrives if there is a specific goal, an identified target. In these situations she's all in favor of an outing. Dilly-dally along a trail to sort through warblers and vireos? Not her style. Identify a target bird a hundred miles away? Let's go!

Which is what we decided to do in late winter 2005. Things aligned well for us: Great Gray Owls were being reported in huge numbers in southern Ontario, including near Kingston, a mere three hours from Ithaca. We had some time off so we could make it a long weekend rather than a long day cooped up in the car. And Reina, just shy of 11 months old, traveled well. Bonus: she couldn't yet walk off while we were stalking our target, and she napped a lot in her car seat.

So, Friday evening we drove to Kingston. A nice dinner out, some time in the motel's pool, a little bit of studying the map Brian Sullivan highlighted for us, and an early morning on Saturday. Brian's directions were extremely simple: drive north out of Kingston on 38 for about fifteen miles, turn west on 7 towards Enterprise, and keep your eyes open. A Cornell group had gone up the week before and counted dozens of Great Grays using this strategy.

Very simply, it worked. When we turned off of 38 towards Enterprise the first bird we spotted was:

Perched a few yards off of the road, a Great Gray
Owl scans the open field for rodent activity.

What luck! We had slowly driven for about a minute through some heavily wooded areas. Suddenly the woods faded back and we were among pastures. Almost immediately Donna spotted a large bird perched on a fence, "What's that?" At first glance it was clearly a raptor, it actually looked like a Northern Harrier. It wasn't. The fence was just a few yards off the road, I eased the car on the shoulder (although we didn't see another car all day) and took in my lifer Great Gray. Donna took some pictures out of her window.

Preparing for take off: we were a bit too close for comfort.
The mottled brown, gray, and white make a beautiful pattern.

That first bird stuck around long enough for some photos and some stellar looks through binoculars. Even Reina, strapped in her car seat, not only noticed but appeared to be taken with this bird. Eventually the owl gracefully flew to a line of trees at the back of the pasture on a couple of slow wingbeats, landing less than 100 yards away. We continued on, driving various back roads that criss-crossed the area, but we did not find any more owls. Granted, we didn't get out and walk the roads, nor did we pause and scan the far ends of the pastures, so we probably missed seeing some that were seeing us. We did look for other birds, of course, and wound up with 10 species for the day. We scoped two different Northern Shrikes which flew off as soon as the camera was pointed at them.

One hour and 20 miles later we were heading back the way we came. The owl was perched in the same spot, and because we hadn't found any others we spent some time admiring her again. Happily, I was able to digiscope at will (during periods where my hands were warm enough to work).

The eyes seem a tad small for a bird this size, and combined
with the white lores (feathers between the eyes and the bill) she
appears to be frowning. The white "bow-tie" is just classy.

First she just a stared us down to see what we were going to do. I'm assuming this is a female, larger in size than the male. Of course, not having seen another owl all day and having no other direct experience I can't say that for sure. Referring to a bird like this with a disengaged "it" doesn't do the experience justice.

Taking some time to preen. The underparts are boldly
streaked over fine barring - exquisite!

Apparently unfazed by our presence, perhaps too hungry to care, she went back into what she was doing. She preened most of the time, periodically swiveling her massive-looking head right and left, as though she heard something coming. She probably did, just nothing that our comparatively weak vision or hearing could detect. And although she certainly looks massive, this species actual body mass is actually 15% less than that of a Great Horned Owl (according to the Birds of North America Online). That means a large female weighs in at a mere three and a half pounds! Much of their size is due to plumage, allowing these birds to withstand the cold winters of the far north.

"Turn to the right!" I've always wanted to say that. Even in profile you
can see how the fine barring in the facial disc forms concentric circles.

Irruptions like the one Ontario was experiencing are usually due to lack of food on the normal wintering grounds, it's suspected the birds that irrupt like this are starving. Although there wasn't too much snow on the ground during our trip, Great Grays are able to hear prey under snow, plunging through to grab the unsuspecting rodent. According to the BNA Online, they can break through snow crust thick enough to support a 175-pound person.

After a few minutes of communing with her it was time to go, partially to give her peace and solitude so she could continue to hunt, partially because it was wicked cold, partially because the other residents of the car were getting restless. We stopped at a small park and pulled out the sled, the "green" version of a snow machine, I suppose, for some winter fun.

Where to, majesty? Oh, donuts on the street again? OK . . . .

The drive home was pleasant, fueled with hot chocolate and the peaceful satisfaction of a successful weekend trip. Even those who don't keep lists marked the event, Reina received a Great Gray Owl plush-animal that resides in her bedroom to this day, a totem of the actual individual and the brief bonding experience that I hope resides deep in her memory. Sometimes you catch what you chase.


Owlman said...

Holy schmoly! I am bright green with envy. What a beaut! I've never had the privilige of seeing a Great Gray and your pictures are amazing. You must be soo chuffed - congrats!

Owlman said...

ROFL, it would help if I read before commenting. I just checked out the pictures and then commented. I then went back to read and noticed the flashback - lesson learned. Anyway, even with a flashback you must still get that warm tingle especially with an AMAZING owl like this.

mon@rch said...

How amazing to have seen and last week tried to create my own memories! Although my GGOW is just a report of a possible and wasn't successful in finding it (or has anyone else).

noflickster said...

owlman - Since I so rarely get out to chase "good" birds, and for some reason those birds don't find me, I'm rehashing, er, reliving some of those magical experiences by writing about them. Like you said, I was not only "chuffed" when it happened, but I actually got giddy writing about it (as Dr. Evil/Mike Myers would say, "Tear . . ."). I missed one on an earlier trip (but made up for it with a handful of other amazing owls - keep an eye out for that flashback, here's a hint to whet your appetite: my first digiscope ever was a Northern Hawk-owl).

mon@rch - I read about this report on your blog, hopefully someone will find (or re-find) this bird if it's still around. You're area is closer than Kingston, and I'd love another encounter! Hope you find one, though this doesn't seem to be a "good" irruption year for them. Good thing, I'm still overwhelmed with the winter finches!

Thanks for dropping by!
- Mike

Jochen said...

Well, good photoshop work, pretending you have seen a bird that is an invention and DOES NOT EXIST, never has, never will.
I have scanned the forests of Scandinavia for more than 100 days in search of a Great Grey, all in vain. My conclusion is that this species was made up by some birder 50 or 100 years ago and he then fabricated a few "birds" from museum material of different bird species, put them out into the forest somewhere, took some photos he then published etc.
Of course, now in the digital age there are more professional means. Just ask George Lucas, he'll know how to conjure a whole movie about "Great Grey Owls".

But still, nice report there, but not convincing to my skeptical mind!

Cheers, and if I really try, I might be able to pull my tongue out of my cheek eventually... Maybe when I do get to see my life Great Grey someday ...

The Zen Birdfeeder said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE that owl! He's beautiful! What a find.

noflickster said...

- jochen - Well, I'm absolutely flattered you think my photoshop skills are that good! But the bird must exist: we have the plushy-stuffed-animal thing WITH real hooty-sounds. If the bird doesn't exist, where'd the sounds come from?

I also didn't believe in this bird until I saw it with my own eyes, it was my nemesis bird for a long while. I heard reports, I chased a couple before but came up empty. But once you see it with your own eyes, you just can't believe it - at least I had the presence of mind to get a reasonably focused photograph. Hoffentlich beobachten Sie ein Bartkautz bald.

- Zen Birdfeeder - Though I was ecstatic to see this one, I remain astounded by the fact a dozen+ were found in the same small area the week or so before. Such a concentration must have been staggering!

Thanks for dropping by,
- Mike

Jochen said...

"I also didn't believe in this bird until I saw it with my own eyes, it was my nemesis bird for a long while. I heard reports, I chased a couple before but came up empty."

This is rubbing in some salt, right ?

Wow, thanks for the sentence in German!! I do hope for one soon, but this species has - as far as I know - never been reported in Germany and is unlikely to ever occur here, so it'll take a trip or two (or three, four, five,...)

Cheers and happy birding trails

noflickster said...

Hi Jochen,

No salt rubbing, I favor the sweets over salty snacks. I'm just offering hope. Hope that you, too, can one day venture into a snow-covered field, be it in Canada or Scandinavia, and find that someone has propped up a plushy-stuffed animal that you can "tick" as your lifer Great Gray (or Grey, depending where you are).


Owlman said...

Mike you crack me up dude. I wish I could see that propped up a plushy-stuffed animal around here! My advice, stop picking on Jochen you still have an owl to ID at: I hope you haven't given up ;-)

Danke schon,

Herr Owlman.

noflickster said...

- Herr Eulemensch, and Jochen - I swear I'm not picking on Jochen! Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm actually trying to ingratiate myself to him so I can visit next time I visit north Germany. That's all!

Note to self: use more winky-faces or something so my meanings don't get lost.

As for the ID, meet you back on your blog . . .
- Mike

Owlman said...

Guten Tag,

I’m just kidding around with ya Mike and I'm sure that Jochen is on board too. Striking the right tone or rather conveying your tone online can be tough sometimes and adding smiley faces all the times can become tiring. Actually I’m always joking around with people even in real life. I guess my goofey facial expressions help in that situation!

Auf wiedersehen,

Herr Eulemensch.

Jochen said...

Hi owlman and Mike,

gosh, we gotta stop! People are starting to look at me with bewildered faces, that tongue in cheek sure must look pretty strange...

Mike (and of course Owlman as well), you're welcome anytime!
Best months for birding here are April/May and August to October. Winter can be nice but this year we haven't had any, so there subsequently was no winter birding.


noflickster said...

Hi Owlman and Jochen - I suppose I should chime in to bring about a calm, serene resolution since it is my blog (though I love the fact I can lose control through benign neglect now and again). Thanks for commenting and the spirited discussion ;-)

Jochen - we are planning a Germany trip, perhaps next winter though more likely summer 2009. I'd love to have some expert advice (and leadership if you're available) during the trip!

Oh, and our winter birding hasn't yet stopped: I noted a possible (and non-photographed) Hoary Redpoll this week, I'd love your input! You can read the post: Back Road Pay Off?

Owlman - I'll be chiming in on your blog soon, I dig the interactivity!

How, exactly, does one fit a few more hours into the day??
- Mike

Locations of visitors to this page