Barred Owl Encounter – This Time My Choice

If you follow this blog then you know early in the week I post about my weekend experiences and later on about my travels or something that has caught my eye. But a Barred Owl encounter yesterday was so special I decided to make a separate post.

And the timing was eerily coincidental since I had recently reread a post on the ABA blog about ethics.

As I posted last week a foggy encounter with a Northern Harrier was all too brief. Like many birding experiences the harrier was there one moment and gone the next. Not much I could do about it. That’s the way it works out.

But it was my choice yesterday to limit the time with the Barred Owl .

I had stopped to check for waterfowl on one of Atterbury FWA’s small lakes. Saturday’s plan was to spend several hours walking Johnson County Park. So I wasn’t going to stop unless I immediately saw something. No waterfowl. But a bird was warbling in the trees. Not a House Finch. Purple Finch?

Once deciding to stop I have a self-imposed rule stating I have to bird the area.

No 3 minute eBird stops.

Parking the car I hear the warble one last time. But now I’m committed to bird the area.

First a Swamp Sparrow pops up for a few photos.

Swamp Sparrow is across the grass chipping away.

Note: The caption in the next photo is important.

I zoom in on the Swamp Sparrow for a better photo.

Note, I have zoomed the camera in and left it there.

I decided to bushwhack to the lakes’ other side where the waterfowl usually congregates.

I haven’t bushwhacked far when for whatever reason I notice a Barred Owl behind and to the left, hidden in the scrubby brush.

Maybe 10 feet away.

In all my years of birding I have never been this close to an owl. At least not an awake one. And that one was 20 feet up in a tree.

Thinking the Barred Owl is going to fly I slowly raise the camera and take a photo.

Barred Owl Encounter
The camera is still set to ZOOM from taking the Swamp Sparrow photo! Not wanting to miss the chance I take the close-up.

The owl doesn’t move and backing out the zoom I take a few more photos.

Walking carefully as not to disturb it, I slowly move to an open spot for another photo.
Maybe because I’m walking slowly the owl doesn’t seem to mind my presence, even turning its head.

Checking the photo’s time stamps the Barred Owl encounter lasted less than 1 minute.

But unlike last week’s Northern Harrier encounter this time it was my choice to come and go quickly.

I never looked back and went about bushwhacking to the other side of the lake.

Even though it lasted less than a minute I can guarantee this will be one of those moments I will recall years from now.

Douglas Pass – The Real Reason

The real reason for the December trip to the Grand Junction area of Colorado was to check out my June BBS (Breeding Bird Survey) routes. As I have previously posted the BBS routes are the main source to determine bird distribution in the U.S. and is one of the main factors if a bird is on or off an endangered list.

Besides the two BBS routes I run in Indiana I will now run two in western Colorado north of Grand Junction. Before I volunteered I wanted to make sure the area habitat was not strictly scrub. From the previous surveys I was sure they weren’t but I wanted to confirm. Thus the real reason for the trip.

Real Reason
Both Baxter Pass and Douglas Pass routes are similar. Their 24.5-mile route both start in scrub land and go over mountain passes (the squiggly part of the route lines). I-80 is the white line and the gray line down the left is the Utah border. Taken from the BBS web page.

I ended up at Highline Lake SP around noon and headed to the nearby starting point of the nearer Douglas Pass route. I wasn’t going to bird the route as much travel it to get a general feel of the landscape.

The early morning view from Loma. The BBS route starts 12 miles north of town and winds up and over Douglas Pass, the snow-covered mountain due north.
The route starts in scrub land which was void of birds except the occasional Common Raven.
After a few miles the route starts paralleling East Salt Creek that had numerous Cottonwoods. I’m assuming along the creek is where most of the birds will be in June. This is the view looking back south towards Loma.
The view looking south from Douglas Pass. The road up consists of several switchbacks which will make it interesting where I pull off in June since I couldn’t with the snow on the ground.
The view north from the pass. When I left the Grand Valley it was 40F. It was 15F and strong winds here. Brrr…
Why are there always Common Ravens where there aren’t any other birds? I circled one of the three flying over the pass.
Now I don’t think this Black-billed Magpie brought down this deer but it was sure acting like it.
These two got into a nice argument over the deer before being joined by several other magpies. I bet they fed on this for a week. Or until the state got it off the road.
A final view as I headed down the pass.

The route was what I hoped it would be – scrub to creek side to mountain. I don’t think I’ll have any problem seeing/hearing the norm of 60+ species for this count.

Bring on June!

Northern Harrier – Weekend Highlight

After a couple of weekends of lousy photo weather I finally have a few photos to pick a highlight. Not saying there are any good photos but at least I have photos to build a story. Especially one about a Northern Harrier.

One of Bob’s Birding Rules (I need to post them) is to turn around and go home when it’s foggy. I should’ve listened to myself and waited until the fog lifted. But I don’t know if it was the crappy weather we’ve been having or traveling for work, but as soon as it was light I was out the door Saturday morning. I knew traveling to the retention ponds the odds of seeing wasn’t good.

Arriving a little before sunrise there wasn’t much fog. But as the day brightened the fog started to build. This really didn’t matter since there wasn’t any waterfowl on the ponds except for a couple of distant Northern Shovelers.

With the warm weather I think the birds thought it was spring. Species I usually don’t hear until March, like meadowlarks, were calling. So I walked the near side of the tree line and listened.

Here’s a photo of an American Tree Sparrow to show how foggy it was a little after sunrise.

The other side of the tree line where the meadowlarks were calling is the large grass area. I decided to make a quick stop and get a meadowlark count (a minimum of 10 counted) or a photo.

Several of the Eastern Meadowlarks were close to the road allowing foggy photos.

There are two Eastern Meadowlarks in this photo taken from no more than 50 feet.
The more vocal of the two who sang constantly while I was there.
The other one didn’t like I was so close and flew. I’m posting this photo to show the density of the fog.

Then out of the fog came a raptor.

This is the view to the north in the general direction of the meadowlark photos. The visibility has to be less than 100 feet.
Northern Harrier
At first I thought it was the local Red-tailed Hawk. But it didn’t take long from its hunting motion to know it was a Northern Harrier. My first for the local area.
And just like that the Northern Harrier was gone into the fog. Did I really see it? Was it a ghost?

I don’t like getting glimpses of birds. Especially ones I don’t see so often. Luckily I saw several Northern Harriers in Colorado so I didn’t feel so bad.

The other odd thing for a January day was a flock of Sandhill Cranes landing near the local park. Odd it’s January and they landed locally. All the rain?

A distant photo of the Sandhill Cranes circling to land (I think) in a nearby field.

 

I’m trying to enlarge a portion of the photo to show the cranes but it didn’t work so well.

4 Gull Species at Once

The local patches have been slow the past couple of weekends and with the rain and cold not many highlights or photos. So I’ll throw in the other half of the Connecticut Holiday trip. Always several highlights when you are away from home but I’ll go with 4 gull species at once.

Before I discuss the gulls I’ll recap the rest of the afternoon.

Brant
After earlier seeing the Brant flight I came across three at Long Beach in Stratford. I spent time viewing Brant since we don’t encounter them in the Midwest. 12/26/16
brant flight
The small group kept close before swimming out.
A comparison showing Brant are about the same size as Herring Gull.
A flock of Horned Larks are just as camouflaged on the beach as they are in a Midwest cornfield.
I was searching for Dunlin or Ruddy Turnstones along the rocks and finally came across a small group of Dunlin.
I thought this was a decent photo showing Dunlin in winter plumage and its down-turned bill.

Gulls

Being from the cornfields I spent time watching and photographing the Gulls at both locations.

The gulls were obviously used to people and wouldn’t stray far. Like this Ring-billed Gull. 12/26/16
This Herring Gull didn’t seem to be sea shell hunting but he did like to stand on them. 12/26/16
The only Lesser Black-backed Gull of the day was hanging out with a mixed flock. 12/26/16
One of several Great Black-backed Gull on the day. 12/26/16
4 gull species
And now for all 4 gull species at once. The smaller Ring-billed Gull, the darker backed Lesser Black-backed Gull, and several different aged Herring Gulls. The large youngster to the right is a Great Black-backed Gull. 12/26/16
I have forgotten how large Herring Gulls are. It didn’t take long for a couple of close flybys to remind me. 12/26/16
With freezing rain forecast for late afternoon it was time to cut the visit to the coast short and head back to the interior of the state. 12/26/16

Western Grebe – No Magic

After my last post on birders trying to turn Common Goldeneye to Barrow’s Goldeneye, you thought I would have learned. Nope. My first day in the Grand Junction area was spent wasting too much time trying to turn a Western Grebe into a Clark’s Grebe.

My first photo from the Grand Junction area. Looking west after the obligatory Starbucks stop. 12/4/16

The day started out exactly like I hoped. Clear and cold (17F). I was at Highline Lake State Park in under a half hour. It was as quiet as birding in winter in Midwest. The difference though was no backdrop noise of cars or machinery like you hear in the Midwest.

The real reason I go to Grand Junction. The wide open scenery. The view north from the south end of Highline Lake.

I was one of the few people at the park besides the rangers. And the birding was slow but I didn’t mind as I walked the trails for a few hours.

What would a stocked lake be without a Bald Eagle? 12/4/16
Of course there were deer. They must be less numerous since the Park Ranger made a point of telling me where the deer were located. 12/4/16
Ruby-crowned Kinglet were numerous on the trip, which surprised me. I’m going to do a separate post on them at a later date. 12/4/16
I stumbled upon a Say’s Phoebe at the south end of the lake. From a distance I initially took it to be an American Robin. 12/4/16
And yes it wagged its tail like all good phoebes. 12/4/16
A group of eight Wilson’s Snipe were on the runoff stream below the dam. A hearty bunch in the cold. 12/4/16

And now about Clark’s, I mean, Western Grebe.

Western Grebe
I first encountered the Western Grebe when they were in the middle of the lake. With the crown looking like it might be above the eye, the one on the right looked possible for Clark’s Grebe. 12/4/16
So I spent more time than I should waiting for them to get closer. 12/4/16
I didn’t mind waiting because I could enjoy the western skyline. 12/4/16
Even at a distance this cropped photo shows the dark surrounding the eye on the first grebe. Obviously a Western Grebe. 12/4/16
I can’t work any magic on the other grebe. The dark area surrounds the eye, though it’s faint.  Western Grebe. It was fun waiting and watching though. 12/4/16

Next on to the real reason for the trip.

Goldeneye – No Question

I have seen numerous Common Goldeneye over the years but never a Barrow’s Goldeneye. During my first year of birding one of my three life chases was for a female Barrow’s Goldeneye. She was hanging with a group of female Common Goldeneye on the Illinois River at Peoria. I easily found the Goldeneyes and spent an hour in the freezing weather but never could turn one of the Common’s into a Barrow.

Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye at Silverthorne Sewage Ponds. 12/3/16

There had been discussion on the Illinois listserv if one was a Barrow’s or not with the prevailing wisdom the bill was yellow enough for a Barrow’s. I have since seen this argument numerous times as people try to turn a Common into a Barrow’s. Especially in Illinois where a Barrow’s does occasionally turn up in a flock of Common.

Well let me say after spending a couple of minutes at the Silverthorne Sewage Ponds there isn’t an argument on Goldeneye differences. 

Colorado County Birding states the Silverthorne Sewage Ponds are a reliable spot to see Barrow’s Goldeneye in the winter. Since it is only two miles off I-70 I thought I’d stop and see for myself if there is a case for arguing about the species.

It was cold, windy, and snowing in the mountains when I stopped. Luckily the ponds are right on the main drag since I wanted to keep moving and get back down to lower altitude.

Immediately upon exiting the car I saw a group of Barrow’s and immediately recognized them. Not even close to the markings on a Common Goldeneye. I know I was close but the difference was easily apparent. The crescent on the male Barrow’s looks nothing like the round spot on the Common. And the all yellow bill of female didn’t hint at the Common’s mostly black bill.

A zoomed shot of Barrow’s Goldeneye showing the large crescent of the male and all yellow bill of the female. 12/3/16
A few weeks later and I’m on the Connecticut coast looking at a distant raft of Common Goldeneye. Even at this distance there is no doubt they are Common. 12/26/16

 

Other species at the Siverthorne Sewage ponds included American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Gadwall . You can’t tell from the photo but the weather was deteriorating quickly. 12/3/16
The only non-waterfowl species at Silverthorne was a Black-billed Magpie, a species I would see at every stop. 12/3/16
I made one more stop on the day at the Gypsum Ponds where a flock of Black-billed Magpies flew over heading to the hills for the evening. 12/3/16

Then off to Grand Junction to start the real trip.

Genesee Mountain Park – CO 2nd Stop

I left off my December Colorado trip with the noise of airplanes and geese at the Denver Airport Road. The geese weren’t quite as loud as the day back in Jan 2015 or the planes as bad as London in April 2016 , but together they made enough noise to be noticed. Especially compared to Genesee Mountain Park.

Genesee Mountain Park
The view north from near the peak of Genesee Mountain Park 12/3/16

Going forward on Colorado trips I plan to take different routes to Grand Junction and bird different areas. Since this was a winter trip I decided to stick close to I-70. I had picked out 3 spots within a couple of miles of the interstate which would give the best chance of seeing species I probably wouldn’t encounter in the Grand Junction area. And since the goal of the trip was to prepare for June’s BBS routes I wanted to hear Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees, species I will encounter in June.

The first stop was Genesee Mountain Park about 20 miles west of Denver. With the chance of snow at higher elevations this was the only high elevation site I planned to bird on the trip. Plus, it is very convenient with the entrance right off the exit ramp.

Upon arriving I was flagged down by Forest Service Workers which didn’t bode well. But all they wanted to know was if I was going to cut my own Christmas Tree. Seems they keep the tree population in check by letting people cut their own trees. I headed to the back of the park to avoid the crowd which meant I had to negotiate through vehicles, adults, kids, and dogs along the narrow park road. And of course it was in a light snow.

The lightly covered path at Genesse Park. 12/3/16

Upon reaching the end of the road my fears of mass people were unfounded as there was only a couple walking their dog. So I expected I would be able to hear the birds. I proceeded up the trail towards the 8300′ peak and it was Quiet.

Quiet.

Unlike the noise at the airport road it was just me and my thoughts. And the wind blowing through the trees.

No birds, just the wind blowing through the pine and fir trees. 12/3/16

It goes on like this for a half hour of walking.

No peeps, chips, or even a Common Raven flying over. Quiet. Knowing I still have over three hours to Grand Junction I decide it’s a bust and take another trial back to the car.

About 10 minutes from the car, which meant about 45 minutes total walking, I finally hear a peep. It is distant in the trees. Should I go on or track it down? I decide to track it down and see birds darting in the tops of the Pine Trees.

Finally Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees. The species I was hoping to see. It’s an active flock and I follow them from tree to tree hoping for a good look and/or photo. I get looks but never a decent photo.

The nuthatches spent most of their time moving rapidly from one pine tree to the next. 12/3/16

With the impending drive I head back to the car where I get one and only one photo of a chickadee.

I got extremely lucky as this Mountain Chickadee only sat still for a second. 12/3/16

On the drive back to the interstate I see a couple more birds and end up with 6 species on the list. At least they were the species I wanted to see. What else should I have expected at elevation on a cold winter’s day?

Eastern Screech-Owl – Weekend Highlight

First of all does anyone know why the ABA uses a hyphen between Screech and Owl in Eastern Screech-Owl and other lists like Clement’s don’t? Have you tried doing a comparison between the two lists using lookup software? Doesn’t work so easy. Why can’t we be consistent in the naming of species?

Anyway, the goal for the weekend was to find an Eastern Screech-Owl closer to home than sites I know in the Atterbury- Johnson County Park Area. On my weekend birding I have been keeping an eye out for the right habitat and think I know of 3-4 places that might have them.

After the wind and rain of Saturday, Sunday morning was a perfect day to check. The air was crisp and cold with no wind. I don’t go out real early since I have discovered Eastern Screech-Owls will respond to a recording about an hour before sunrise.

Arriving around 7AM and making the 5 minute walk I was right on time. It didn’t take but a minute before one and then two showed up. At first I thought I had called in a Barred Owl because the wing span seemed too wide for a screech-owl. Sibley’s lists the wingspan of an Eastern Screech-Owl at 20″, half of a Barred Owl’s. It must have been the dark and the fact the wing goes from the back of the head to almost the end of the tail.

One of the owls must have infringed on the other’s territory because I watched them harass each other off and on for the next 20 minutes. Several times one would fly straight at the other and the receding one would do the screech call flying away.

Finally it was getting light and they flew their separate ways.

I’ll be checking the other sites for Eastern Screech-Owls and also Northern Saw-whet Owls over the course of the winter.

Otherwise my time was reviewing the local species.

Eastern Screech-Owl
I took one photo of the Eastern Screech-Owl with my flash. The red-eye has been removed and the photo has been lightened. 1/1/17
An American Kestrel showing the diagnostic 3 “sideburns” and looking intensely at prey. 1/1/17
Like most of the birds on Sunday American Tree Sparrows were hunkered down in the brush. Franklin Township Community Park 1/1/17
Brown Creepers must not worry about the cold, at least not when the sun came out. Franklin Township Community Park 1/1/17
This Mourning Dove didn’t move on close approach. It was early and it appeared cold. Franklin Township Community Park 1/1/17
The retaining ponds in Greenwood were half-open. Canada Geese, Mallards, and a couple of American Coots were the only species present. Most flew out to the fields right after sunrise. 1/1/17