Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Owl Prowl: Great greys + the BAIT DEBATE (#233)

Back when I started birding, I heard these legendary tales of "the year the great greys came through."  Gosh darn it all, I said to myself, why couldn't I have picked up this hobby one year earlier?!?! Even their Latin name, Strix Nebulosa, adds to the majestic allure surrounding them. So I was more than ecstatic when I heard the first reports that they might be back after four years. Just to give some background, Great Grey Owls are not native to our area. They are northern birds that will travel south if there is a shortage food--so while it's a treat for us to see them, it is not for the owls because desperate measures have caused them to come our way. At 27", they are massive and our largest owl.

We tried Huntmar and March Valley roads first in an attempt to find them in the west end, closer to home, but no dice. So we made the trek out to the other end of our particularly wide city on Saturday afternoon--since we are far west and this is far east, that made 32km each way, totalling 60km. We parked at P8 and walked back along Rockcliffe Parkway to the trailhead. There were several people there and lenses and scopes aimed at the targets. It wasn't long until someone kindly pointed out the grey blob in the tree for us. Unfortunately the sun was on the wrong side of things (if I had known, I would have come in the morning), so I took what shots I could at ISO1600 and we decided to revisit in the morning, making the total driving over the course of the weekend 120 km. I'm not much of a chaser and this is a pretty far trek for a bird alone, but it's nowhere near the travel time for other people we met in the field from Boston and Pennsylvania.

Armed with my latest acquisition, I was pretty pleased with the results but I still need to really get used to it, especially the focus. On the way out, I happened to see Bob Boisvert, friend and TC photo club founder, although we didn't have time to talk as it was getting darker and he still hadn't seen the birds. Actually, it was nice to meet several people there, from both close and afar, including Dorian Anderson and Clyde Drodge.

#233: Great Grey Owl; Green's Creek (Orleans, Ottawa); January 26, 2013
*unbaited* Matt got this shot!
On Sunday, up at 6 am, on the road at 6:30 am and in the parking lot at 7 am. This time we were among the first there. Dorian, who we'd met the day before, was waiting for us and we made our way to the field. One owl was perched very near to were it had been the day before, and we waited for the sun to rise and bask it in a warm yellow glow.
*unbaited* and coincidentally, my favourite shot. Notice the white "bowtie" under its face.

It didn't take too long for the hordes to arrive. It was somewhat akin to when an Asian tour bus stops and all of a sudden you are surrounded by chaos and cameras. Again, not being a bird chaser, I wasn't used to this and it wasn't long before these owls became a total spectacle.  At one point, it became so absurd that I stopped taking photos of the owls and started taking pictures of the people taking pictures of the owls...
the crowd and more people arriving

It was not long until the mice started flying either. This was my first time witnessing baiting of owls (I had only seen evidence of it before on Amherst) and I have really mixed feelings about it. I don't think I can write this post without being fully transparent about it. So here comes...


I hate for this discussion to detract from such a marvelous bird, but I do want to take some time to address an important topic. *clambering up onto soapbox* And y'all know I can hardly write a post without making some kind of statement. I'm probably going to be ruffling some feathers (ahem) but I'm okay with that if it means raising a little awareness, but really, I am not trying to offend anybody. And this is a especially difficult because I think everyone really does mean well.

photographers left, owl right

Does this manner of attracting birds detract from the authenticity? I think so. I also think that if that's how you got your shots, you should openly say so instead of being misleading about it. You could have gotten the same shot if you had more patience and became familiar with bird behaviour and put the time in. So you can spend either 200 hours in the field with a blind and a whole lot of coffee and toe warmers or just 2 if you choose this route.

I've intentionally kept any shots that involved baiting separate.  In my mind, they don't belong with the rest. In fact, I even kind of cringe putting my name to them, now that I think about it.

Did I throw any mice? No.
Did I take shots when a mouse was thrown and an owl swooped in for the kill? Absolutely.
Was I excited to see an owl in action? Of course I was.
Opportunistic? Maybe.
What do you do when you witness this? Have at it with someone in the field? Walk away? No easy answer there.

I want to talk about the picture directly above. At first I thought it was really neat to have the (poor, doomed) mouse in the shot (even if it's half out of the frame), and I even got some with the owl holding the mouse in its beak, and eventually swallowing it, tail last.

AND THEN I realized how ridiculous this is and what a giveaway it is. Do you think we have white mice running around her in Ottawa? Helllls no. This is exactly what does NOT happen in nature. If this shot was authentic the owl would be after a little brown field mouse or maybe a star-nosed mole. Not a lab rat!

This matter has been debated before and will certainly continue to be debated as the accessibility of digital cameras and long lenses increases. As internet postings go up, so do the numbers of observers. As lenses and cameras get cheaper, so does the number of "photographers" (guilty as charged on both counts). The more someone gets the idea of throwing mice around/playing recordings on the their ipods, the more this escalates into chaos. I think a problem starts to develop when the birds are exposed to this every day because every photographer wants that shot, and more often than not, several shots because one good one is never enough. It starts to mess with their survival instincts.

It's difficult, since on the one side you have fierce opposers and on the other, people who are like, "what's the big deal?" There are a lot of arguments that I've seen for either side:
  • FOR: you fill feeders for birds, how is this any different?
  • FOR: if they came this far south, they had to be starving, so we're helping right? 
  • AGAINST: the mice from the store could have diseases and make the owls sick. they would not eat these in the wild.
  • AGAINST: the mice could escape, are ill-adapted to survive and may even upset the natural fauna
  • AGAINST: the practice puts the birds in jeopardy as they become habituated to humans
  • AGAINST: we should avoid placing any undue stress on a bird--would taking advantage of a starving bird by tempting it to approach humans within a few feet and essentially cornering it not qualify as such?
  • AGAINST: Owls are camouflaged for a reason. Drawing them out into the open makes them susceptible to mobbing by crows, for example.
  • just google "baiting owls" and you'll find many more arguments.
I welcome any comments below.
I could also talk about the grey/gray debate, but I won't...this isn't a grammar blog, after all :)  
Great Grey Owl imprint
On that note, I think I'm very happy with the looks and the photos I took and won't be venturing out to the east end again for the greys--I plan to let them be. I consider myself so very lucky to have finally seen Great Greys and I hope that they stay safe and survive this winter so they can go back to their homes. Here's to a stunningly beautiful and majestic #233, Strix Nebulosa.

2013 season opener! (#232)

There's been quite a lot of excitement locally about the Great Grey Owls in the area, and I'll have a post on that too, but first, I have some other business to take care of. I'm finally getting to the LAST class in the photography certificate program. I had to chose 2-4 topics that I wanted to focus on...and what a task that was. The funny thing is, it took a long time for me to realize that "birds" was an obvious choice. In  my brain I somehow managed to separate these two hobbies, but I realized I'm out shooting birds all the time anyway--it's an obvious choice! So you'll probably see a slight increase in postings, because I'm expected to be fairly prolific. This will be an intense 4 months as attempt to scrape together a half a dozen *top-notch* shots every week...and not just of this subject, but my others as well.

We were headed to Kingston for my aunt's birthday which happened to coincide with an OFNC trip to Amherst. Unfortunately the trip was cancelled, but we went anyway since we were close by and it's definitely owl season...although we found none that day. We did visit the owl woods and ran into a large group there from the Willow Beach Field Naturalists (Port Hope area). Dad came in tow--I love that his favourite part of the whole thing is feeding the chickadees.
dad and two friends
I did notice some rather striking ducks in the rough waters as we crossed on the ferry. They would take off before we could get even remotely close but in zooming in to review the shots I could ID them. I'll admit I had to pull out the guide (I'm a little rusty these days). I discovered it was a long-tailed duck (notice cute spot on cheek). Unfortunately these ones don't have the long-tails (First winter?)

And then it took me about a week to think to myself...what second...that was a lifer! Which is a good thing, because Matt made the absurd resolution to see 50 new life birds this year...so....one down...

#232: Long-tailed duck; Amherst Island

There were lots of other ducks around the island, and we spotted a Northern Shrike, but aside from that, it was a pretty quiet day (we were actually only there for a few hours).

On the local scene, I checked the Hilda Road feeders a few times this weekend and the Duck Club feeders on March Valley Road a few times too.
Lots of turkeys around! Not the prettiest of birds but when their feathers shimmer in the light it's quite nice.
At Hilda there is an abundance of redpolls, chickadees, American Tree Sparrows, a snowshoe hare, nuthatches, woodpeckers (Hairy/Downy). A brown creeper had been seen but we missed it. There were quite a few people and its nice to talk to the local photographers/birders.
Furry visitor to the feeders!

At the Duck Club feeders, we saw Pine Grosbeaks  two Pileated woodpeckers and rest the same as at Hilda. Pine Grosbeaks were a nice treat--my first time seeing them in Ottawa.
OK, what you are waiting for...Great Grey posts coming up next!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

a new year: looking forward; looking back

it seems that every year, I maintain the tradition of a New Year's post (2011 and 2012). This post has elements that are somewhat reminiscent of last year's post--but this shouldn't come as a surprise with birds coming and going just as the seasons do, and how we so often compare the present to where we were this day in the past. this will be one year that I won't promise frequent posts. For me and I'm sure for you, the new year always gives a moment of pause and time for reflection. It is a time of renewed clarity of purpose and good intentions.

I'd already visited the island on Christmas Day but took an unexpected trip back when Matt wanted to ferry over early in the morning to shovel out my dad's driveway (*insert sigh here*) since he'd been having bad back spasms the night before. We were just off the ferry and not at Dad's yet when wonder of all wonders--a beautiful white snowy owl swooshes over the road in front of us to land in the field. The first light of day was just starting to radiate, and we reaped the karma of Matt's planned good deed.
Snowy sits in front of the previous night's moon at dawn

**The future of snowies and other owl species (along with other birds and bats) are being threatened by the planned wind farm for the island. While I would certainly describe myself as an environmentalist who understands the need for alternative energy, this is a terrible move. AI is a world-recognized International Birding Area located in a major migration corridor. The wind farm on nearby Wolfe Island has staggeringly high kill rates for birds and knowing the special birds that frequent the island, I fear that Amherst will be worse. Not to mention the other issues that remain unaddressed. I'll have to save discussing this in depth for another day but please take the time to educate yourself and make your voice heard.**

On the way back out, we spotted another snowy on the lake side, quite a ways off, posted in a tree. We thought it was the same one, but when we continued on the first was still at its landing spot. Two snowies in one outing, when you aren't even looking for them, is a rare treat. It alternated between looking side to side at the birds zipping by at the feeder it was near, to gazing intently at me. There's something about their huge, glowing amber eyes that seem to understand or maybe know more than you do---maybe that's where the expression "wise old owl" comes from. Not just this, its calm gaze gave me a sense of quietness and serenity. Grandma loved owls and being only two days after she passed away, these two owls, angel-like and majestic, had to have been sent to me. I thought might be her way of being a continued presence in my life. This moment made me realize that birding is so much more than getting lifers, ticking off lists or snapping the perfect shot. Birding is a way to create meaning in my life. It is reverence for something bigger and awe, appreciation, respect and humility. Damn, it's therapy. Birding is not something that I have to set out to do--I can just go about my business and open my eyes and ears--they are always there. Maybe you get distracted by something else for a time, but they're always there to come back to.
Snowy with seemingly innocuous but actually foreboding windmills in background

Snowy highlights a life lesson--be ready for opportunity or [dinner] will pass you by!
As is so often the case, some country wisdom comes over the radio (cuz you can't cruise country roads to anything else) with clockwork timing to put it all together. At times I felt like 2012 dealt me a bad hand, but when it comes down to it, I have so much to be grateful for. No matter what hand you get, you still have to play, but if you play your cards right, you can still take the pot.

Every time you think you got it bad
You can find someone who's got it worse
All the things you take for granted now
They started out as blessings first
If you got someone who loves you
And a steady job that puts food on the table
If you're strong and able
Man, be grateful.
Somewhere there is a balance of being grateful for what you have and drive to take action for what you want/need. I do think it's possible to achieve both and that there is a difference between gratefulness and complacency. But I'm really going on a tangent now.

Back on the mainland at Mary's, I noticed some movement in the trees behind the house, which seemed to intensifying. She'd wanted us to fill up her winter feeders earlier in the week but nothing had shown up yet. I pulled out the binoculars to ascertain just what the wee tiny things were -- a gallup of 50 or more redpolls had converged on the feeder, many perched on clothesline, rallying for position and waiting turn for one of the 8 spots on the feeder, or hopping around on the ground. We enjoyed watching them for 5-10 minutes (of course, Mary was gone). Skittish as they were, they would all take off and all eventually make their way back. Finally a few lifted off, then a few more, until the last stragglers also took flight and there were none left. I waited for them to return but they were gone for good this time. If you blinked, you would have missed it. You would have thought that the feeder had been empty as it had been the rest of the week if you didn't notice the tiny tracks all over the snow. It was also a reminder of how much we miss when we don't observe things closely enough. The snowies and this redpolls all before 10 and I mentioned to Matt how I felt that day was blessed...which is really unusual coming from someone who's not religious.

I won't promise that 2013 will be prolific year of posts for me, as it's not my intention. I'm sure I'll check in and post the odd time as I do when I have something exciting to share. I haven't actually set any resolutions yet, but in the near future I'll meditate long and hard about it. Many of us feel a sense of impending and momentous change this time of year but rarely is that feeling translated into action before it is obscured again. I think it's important to frame resolutions not in terms of achievement/ failure but of mindfulness and purpose of being--a reminder of the person we want to be and how to live a meaningful life. An opportunity to take stock and adjust as necessary.

For those of you who find yourself here now, or who have been here a long time...I wish you all a very happy new year, and I hope that 2013 deals you a good hand. :)