Posts Tagged ‘Snowy Owl’

Snowy Owl on the beach at Cape Hatteras

Snowy Owl on the beach at Cape Hatteras

Seeing the Snowy Owl could not have been easier.  We parked at the Cape Hatteras campground, walked the quarter-mile trail over the dunes to the beach, and saw the beautiful owl perched on a piece of driftwood.  The hard part had been convincing everyone to go for it.  It was the first day of the Thanksgiving OBX trip for our group of eight from the Piedmont Bird Club.  When we had first talked about the owl, everyone was agreeable to what everyone else wanted to do, but no one expressed a desire to change our plans to see the owl.  So, we had intended to stick with our itinerary and go to Lake Mattamuskeet NWR on Thanksgiving, the only day that weekend that it was closed to hunting.  But after a friend called me at 7:30 on Thanksgiving morning and said, “We just saw the owl, you don’t even have to walk down the beach,” everyone was willing to change our plans.  The Snowy Owl was a life bird for five of our group and a state bird for me.  And, it was gorgeous!  After admiring the owl, we started back towards our cars and had a wonderful surprise – an American Bittern right out in the open in the middle of the path.

American Bittern

American Bittern at Cape Hatteras

We birders had a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day. And, it was still early so we continued on to Lake Mattamuskeet.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Second year Black-crowned Night-Heron at Lake Mattamuskeet NWR

It was full of birds as expected, especially ducks and Tundra Swans, the real stars of wintertime coastal North Carolina along with thousands of Snow Geese.  Other highlights were Marsh Wrens and seven Black-crowned Night-Herons.  The group of Night-Herons included individuals of various ages.  It was the first time that I can recall seeing a second-year bird – no longer spotted like a juvenile, but rather dull and dusky with the bill still partially yellow.  I had seen both Tundra Swans and Snow Geese before, but enjoyed the opportunity to really study them and note details like the pink bills of the juvenile swans.

Tundra Swan family

Tundra Swans at Alligator River NWR

Snow Geese in flight

Snow Geese at Pea Island NWR

Friday brought more good birds at Pea Island, Bodie Island, and Alligator River NWR.  The highlight for that day may not have been a bird at all, but the Black Bear that we found shortly before dark in a field at Alligator River.  Although this was a large wild animal, there was something very cute and appealing about him as he moved about in the field munching on vegetation.

Phyllis me Bear

Shelley, “Bear,” and Phyllis

We had another “bear” for the weekend when a friend of Emily’s cousin showed up unexpectedly with his large dog to spend the night at the condo where most of our group was staying.  I was glad that I was sharing a room with Phyllis as otherwise it might have been a little crowded on the sofa at the condo.  Phyllis quickly became Bear’s new best friend when she took him for a walk, but I shared my lunch with him, so I think that he liked me, too.

Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbird at Alligator River NWR

On Saturday, our last full day of the trip, we went to Alligator River NWR again.  And, the bird that I most remember?  A Red-winged Blackbird!  I should be embarrassed to tell this story, but I’m blessed with the ability to laugh at myself, so here it is.  As we were driving out, a bird the size of a large sparrow flew in front of our car and then perched in a shrub on the side of the road.  We stopped, admired the bird, puzzled over its identity, and I took dozens of photos.  We saw only the back of the bird and the face.  The pattern on the back and wings was intricate and beautiful; the orange on the face was gorgeous!  We thought that it must be a rare sparrow that we just couldn’t identify.  After puzzling over the photos for a while, we realized what it was.  A very common bird that I thought I’d learned years ago – a female Red-winged Blackbird.  I love the never-ending lessons of birding.  I don’t need new life birds when I can’t remember the birds that I’ve already seen!

After a stop at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head and another at Bodie Island Lighthouse & Pond, the trip was over all too soon.  Our final birds of the trip were a few gulls and at least 75 Northern Gannets that Phyllis and I saw from our sixth floor ocean-front balcony the next morning.  It was peaceful yet thrilling to watch the large group of gannets soaring, gliding, swooping, and diving.  I felt totally happy and content, lost in the moment, while watching those gorgeous birds.

Emily Tyler did an excellent job organizing and leading the trip and it was great fun sharing the experience with new friends.  I’m looking forward to the next Piedmont Bird Club trip.

Pintail pair

Northern Pintail pair at Bodie Lighthouse pond

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Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl hunting in the Superior National Forest. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

The Great Gray Owl was actively hunting in a bog in the Superior National Forest as we watched it from the side of Minnesota Highway 2 north of Two Harbors.  It sat in the tops of trees surveying the ground below in the early morning light.  Every couple of minutes the owl  flew to a different tree, always alert, but not seeming to care that we were watching.  The fifteen minutes that we stood there in the serene beauty of the north woods was a wonderful start to the five-day trip.  This owl was not in a known location, but Erik had found it simply by knowing the habitat and carefully watching.  The Great Gray Owl is the tallest North American owl with a height of 24 to 33 inches.  It has the largest wingspan of five feet, but it is just a big ball of fluff.  It preys mostly on rodents with its small feet and talons.  Both Great Horned and Snowy owls weigh half again as much and have larger feet and talons allowing them to capture lager prey.

Our group of birders

Our group of birders – Gary Ludi, Shelley Rutkin, Myrna Harris

Myrna Harris and I had flown to Minnesota the day before where we met our guide, Erik Bruhnke, and Gary Ludi from Atlanta, for the Partnership for International Birding trip.  On the first day, we birded a little in Minneapolis and then headed north where we saw the first owls of the trip, two Snowies at the Superior airport in Wisconsin.  We learned that it was definitely not an irruption year, but that owls were actually rather scarce.  Still, we could not stop ourselves from teasing Erik that we expected an owl every day.

After our Great Gray Owl flew deeper into the woods and out of sight, we continued north.  There were long stretches without any birds at all, but the ones that we did find were the northern specialties that had motivated us to travel to northern Minnesota in January when sane people were heading south.

Myrna - warming up in Isabella

Myrna – warming up in Isabella. The temp outside was -9 degrees F.

In Grand Marais, we found a flock of Red Crossbills and Common Redpolls with one Hoary Redpoll and one White-winged Crossbill.  Four finch species in one binocular view!  An even more exciting find was a flock of about 30 Bohemian Waxwings.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

They were close enough to see well with our naked eyes, but with bins and scopes we could see every feather. These are BIG birds! Bohemian Waxwings are only one inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, but they weigh almost twice as much (56 grams vs. 32 grams). Their breasts and bellies are gray rather than the gorgeous bronze of Cedar Waxwings, but their classic waxwing head and face, intricate markings on the wings, and Rufous undertail coverts make them just as beautiful.

Bohemian Waxwings

Bohemian Waxwings eating snow. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Day three of the trip was spent entirely in Sax Zim Bog.

Sax Zim Bog

Sax Zim Bog

I recorded only 21 species that day, but three of them were lifers.  Our owl for the day was an extremely cooperative Northern Hawk Owl who allowed us excellent looks.

Northern Hawk Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Northern Hawk Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

A common bird in the bog, but exciting for me was Ruffed Grouse – seven of them!  This grouse was close to becoming a nemesis bird, but I can now claim it as a lifer.  Most of them were adeptly clambering around in the tops of shrubs or trees, foraging on buds.  We also had a wonderful view of a Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Sharp-tailed Grouse. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

One of my favorite new birds is Pine Grosbeak – big, lovely, easy to identify, and very cooperative.


Male PineGrosbeak. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee – an adorable Minnesota specialty. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Next it was time to look for gulls.  But first we wanted one more look at a Snowy Owl, so we headed back to the Superior airport early on our fourth day.  This time we found a Snowy perched in the top of a tree.  This is not common behavior for a Snowy, but it allowed us to get the scope on it for a quality view.  Crows harassed the poor bird and we could see the Snowy hiss at them.

Snowy Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Snowy Owl being harassed by American Crows. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Satisfied, with our Owl encounter of the day, we headed to the Superior landfill and Wisconsin Point to look for gulls.  We found only Herring Gulls and fly-over Glaucous Gulls.  But back at Canal Park in Duluth, we walked to the water’s edge and discovered a beautiful Iceland Gull right in front of us.  This is the kind of gull that makes gull watching fun.  Erik also found a Thayer’s Gull, another lifer for Gary, Myrna, and me.

Iceland Gull.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Iceland Gull. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We celebrated our life gulls with one last visit to Sax Zim Bog where we found Redpolls everywhere, including five Hoaries.  We also saw Pine Grosbeaks, two Northern Shrikes, and other bog birds including Bald Eagles, which we saw four of our five days in Minnesota.

Black-capped Chickadee and Hoary Redpoll

A Black-capped Chickadee checks out a Hoary Redpoll. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Common Redpolls

Common Redpolls were the most numerous feeder visitor. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Red Squirrel

Minnesota’s Red Squirrels were much cuter than our Gray Squirrels at home.

The last day of our trip came all too quickly, but we had seen most of the expected birds.  The Boreal Owl just wasn’t meant to be for this trip.  Ironically, they started showing up as soon as we returned home.  So, our main target for the drive back to Minneapolis was Rough-legged Hawk.  We finally found a distant dark morph Rough-legged Hawk at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin.  The distance was too great to see detailed field marks, but we could see the characteristic hovering behavior.  The Rough-legged Hawk is one of only two large raptors that hover regularly when hunting.  The other large raptor that hovers is the Osprey.  Although the bird was not close, it was exciting to see the special hunting behavior that makes it unique.  On that last day, our owl for the day was this beautiful Barred Owl.

Barred Owl.  Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

Barred Owl. Photo by Erik Bruhnke.

We boarded our plane for home with happy memories of winter in Minnesota and dreams of returning in the warmth of spring.  This trip was January 16-20, 2013.  Partnership for International Birding sponsored the trip and Erik Bruhnke of Naturally Avian was our guide.  Many thanks for Erik for a wonderful trip and for granting permission to use his beautiful photos in this post.

Erik and Shelley - trying to stay warm!

Erik and Shelley – trying to stay warm!

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