South Dakota Lifer! Black-necked Stilt and more

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus

A lifer for South Dakota, a Black-necked Stilt! I'd seen them in Utah and Arizona, but they're few and far between in South Dakota.

If you could ignore the gale-force winds that seem to dominate the weather this spring, we’ve had some really lovely, sunny warm days.  TOO warm and sunny to stay indoors and work all the time!  I took yesterday off to spend the day birding.  We’re still a touch early for a lot of the songbirds here, so I wanted to spend the day focusing on shorebirds and other birds around wetlands and lakes in the area.

It’s been incredibly dry here.  West of Sioux Falls are a number of lakes, wetlands, sloughs, etc., places that are normally great places to look for all types of water-loving birds.  This spring though?  Not so much.  Where water exists in the deeper lakes and ponds there are certainly a lot of waterfowl, but some of my favorite wetland areas to look for shorebirds are completely dry.  Hence, I made the 1 1/2 hour drive up to the Lake Thompson area, and it ended up being well worth the drive.

With water levels falling since last fall in eastern South Dakota, there are a lot of shallow water areas and mudflats around, perfect for looking for shorebirds. The highlight of the day wasn’t at Lake Thompson but at another shallow water body on the way home, in northwestern Minnehaha County.  Foraging alongside an American Avocet was a Black-necked Stilt, a very uncommon species for South Dakota and the first I had ever seen in the state.

White-faced ibis - Plegadis chihi

I always do a double-take when I spot a White-faced Ibis in South Dakota. They always seem rather exotic for such a chilly place.

Shorebirds weren’t plentiful in number around Lake Thompson, but I did find several first-of-year species.  One spot on the north side of Lake Thompson (actually the north end of Lake Henry) had a wonderful variety, including Marbled Godwit, Dunlin, Semipalmated Plover, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, and a host of swirling and whirling Wilson’s Phalarope.  The Phalarope were absent in the area last weekend, but they were certainly out in force yesterday, with a number of small flocks found throughout the area.

Dunlin - Calidris alpina

One of my favorites, a Dunlin. Always easy to spot even when they don't have their black bellies in their breeding plumage, with that longish droopy bill.

Wading birds weren’t nearly as plentiful yet as they’ll be in a week or two, but again there was a nice variety.  First-of-year species including Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and Great Blue Heron.  A nice treat were 5 White-faced Ibis, something I don’t see all that often in southeastern South Dakota, and a species that always seems a bit out-of-place in the state, as if it should be found in some tropical wetland in Florida.

Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa

Another favorite, Marbled Godwits, the bigger of the two godwits that come through the state (the other being the Hudsonian Godwit). These guys actually stick around and breed in South Dakota.

Throw in some other FOY songbird species, and it was a terrific day of birding.  Given the state of the wetlands and lakes up in the Lake Thompson area, it could be rather spectacular for shorebirds once they start moving through in force in the next few weeks.

Goin’ on the road!!

Mobile Friendly Test

Woo-hoo! I'm goin' mobile! According to the Google test of my new "mobile" version of my main species/photos pages, I'm good to go. I'm mobile-friendly!!

Going on the road!  What’s that, you say?  You think I’m actually going birding?!?! Oh dear….no. It’s been a cloudy, gloomy, drippy weekend, and tomorrow you can add 30 mph winds to that combination.  No, no, I’m not goin’ on the road literally, just figuratively!

One reason I really enjoy working on my website (…even when the weather is gloomy or when I can’t get away to actually go birding, I can work on my website, process my photos, etc.  Is it as good as going birding?  No, but it is enjoyable.  I even DO have some nice ‘digital birding’ moments, when I finally get to a long lost folder of unprocessed photos and find bird photos I didn’t remember that I had!

This “going on the road” though is directly related to Google.  Yes, that Google.  My god, the power that company has.  I’m just doing some bird photography and website work on the side, I’m not making a living at it.  I can’t imagine how frantic some business owners probably are right now, because their livelihoods DO depend upon website traffic.  The issue? Tuesday is mobile-geddon day!!  That’s the day Google says they’ll start ranking your website based on how “mobile-friendly” it is.

And that’s why I’m “goin’ on the road”!!  My massive website (6000+ pages, 10000+ photos) is definitely NOT mobile friendly.  At least it wasn’t when a week ago.  But it’s getting there now!  I’m not putting all my content in a mobile-friendly format, but for my bread-and-butter species account pages, with associated photographs, I AM making versions that look great on a cell phone.  I even pass Google’s mobile friendly test page!

If you don’t know my main website has individual pages for each of the 970 or so species that have been found in North America.  Well, almost.  I’m up to 820 or so pages, working on the last 150 or so species.  Each has at least one photo (many/most of them are mine), but in addition to tons of photos, there’s info on habitat, diet, nesting, migration, trivia, and more for each species.  THAT’s the heart and soul of my website, so I’ve been working on making those pages mobile friendly.

I won’t make it for all species by Tuesday!  But I’m working on it, and I must say I think the new mobile pages look great on my iPhone.  If you get a chance, check them out.  If you just go to on your phone, it will bring up the mobile version of the pages I have.

Furry Bird Season

Oscar and Felix - My furry birds

Furry birds Oscar and Felix at their preferred water source, my fountain outside.

Ah, spring. For a birder, it’s such a wonderful time of year. That’s particularly true in frigid South Dakota, where winters are dark, long, cold, and often…seemingly birdless.  It’s mid-April, which means large number of waterfowl have already moved through, shorebirds are starting to arrive, and furry birds start to drink at your bird fountain.

Wait a minute.  Furry birds?  Yes, I have a furry bird infestation.  The furry bird infestation started in early July last year, when two furry birds started drinking heavily from the bird fountain I have outside.  I even know their names!  Oscar and Felix, two of the sweetest and most lovable furry birds you every saw.

The photo above is of the first day we got them.  They were young dogs, probably about 1 year old at the time, who had a rough start to life. They were found living outside near Lawrence Kansas, when a farmer and his wife managed to corral them and get them inside right before a blizzard.  They hid under their bed for nearly 2 weeks before getting picked up by a rescue group. It was from that rescue group that we ended up getting them in July of 2014.

They were obviously used to finding food and water sources outside.  All summer long, they refused to drink nice fresh water from bowls inside!  All they wanted was to  drink from the outdoor bird fountain, ala the photo above.

So it’s now furry bird season!  The bird fountain got set up outside today, something I’m sure will please my furry birds! All winter they still would prefer to eat snow if it were around outside, only drinking water inside if there were no outside source.  We’ll see what happens, but my money is on  the water bowl inside sitting unused for the next 6 months, while I have to clean and fill the bird fountain outside frequently!!

Popular Science – Story about my Work!

Popular Science Story

One of the graphics Popular Science used for their article about my research. I must say...I wish I had graphic designers like theirs! Their graphics are much cooler than what I came up with for the PLOS ONE article.

I was contacted a few months ago by folks at Popular Science magazine, who wanted to do a story about the bird species modeling that I had been doing at work.  I had almost forgotten about it, but while getting groceries today, I saw the magazine stand and picked up a copy.  Lo and behold, pages 28 and 29 of the April issue features my work!!  Here’s  a to the web version on Popular Science, which has much of the same content:

A Birder’s Guide to the Future – Popular Science Infographic

The infographic uses the data from my paper that was published in PLoS One.  In the paper, I used a modeling technique to look at how future land use and climate change might affect bird species distributions in the conterminous United States.

It’s nice to get my work published in scientific journals.  As far as my scientific credibility is concerned, it’s definitely more valuable to get published in scientific journals.  But having the popular press pick up a story, and seeing your work in a well-read magazine like Popular Science is way cool!!

Early April Waterfowl

Bufflehead - Bucephala albeola

A drake Buflehead in glorious plumage. When the sun hits their heads just right, they can be really spectacular looking birds.

After a long South Dakota winter, March is nice, as you start to see Robins, Geese fly over by the hundreds, and other waterfowl pop up wherever there’s open water.  It’s really not until April that I get really excited though, as all the water is usually open, and you start to get a wider variety of species moving through or moving in for the summer.

Early this morning I went to western Minnehaha County, an area best known by birders for the scattered wetlands and lakes.  It’s still early for most songbirds, so I concentrated on the wetlands looking for waterfowl, and any early shorebirds that may be moving through.  One of my favorite places to bird in early April is Dewey Gevik Nature Area.  It’s right on the west side of Wall Lake, west of Sioux Falls.  The great thing about it…there’s a permanent blind set up on a spit of land sticking out into the shallow lake, with many viewing ports that are just wonderful for getting close to, and taking photos of, waterfowl.

Northern Pintail - Anas acuta

A northern Pintail drake taking flight. This was the only Northern Pintail I saw at Dewey Gevik Nature area, but he was kind enough to be foraging right around the blind for most of the morning.

This morning certainly didn’t disappoint!  I honestly believe two-thirds of my “good” waterfowl photos I’ve ever taken are from that blind.  Because it sits out on an open spit of land, the waterfowl scatter as you approach and enter, but once you’re in, it’s typically just a matter of waiting for the birds to forget that there might be a human being inside that building.  There wasn’t a huge number of waterfowl this morning, but there was a decent variety.  Most importantly for me, several different kinds occasionally came close enough to the blind for some really nice photos.

Northern Pintail - Anas acuta

Another photo of the Northern Pintail at Dewey Gevik. I took advantage of every photo opportunity he gave me, as it's darn hard to get close to these guys around here.

I love watching Buffleheads this time  of year, but I feel quite sorry for female Buffleheads.  There were at least 25 Buffleheads scurrying about the open water, with little groups of males chasing and harassing females to no end.  In the warm morning light, a male Bufflehead is really gorgeous, with green and purple iridescence highlighting the head, and the beautiful pure white and black plumage elsewhere.  There was  a lone Northern Pintail who also occasionally ventured close, which was a real treat, given how difficult it is for me to closely approach one around hunting-happy South Dakota.  Other waterfowl at Dewey Gevik included the normal Canada Geese, Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup, Northern Shovelers, Gadwalls, and the first Blue-winged Teal of the season.

American Pipit - Anthus rubescens

An American Pipit, clambering along the rip-rap rocks at Weisensee Slough in western Minnehaha County.

I then headed west towards the western edge of Minnehaha County, stopping at Weisensee Slough.  The dry winter and early spring has really taken a toll on the water levels.  The south side will likely be dry soon without rain, but in the meantime, the open mudflats and very shallow water has attracted a lot of early shorebirds.  Killdeer were EVERYWHERE, but there were also flocks of Baird’s Sandpipers, and likely other shorebirds (too far to identify).  The very shallow water also obviously appeals to Green-winged Teal, as there were hundreds scattered around the slough.

American Pipit - Anthus rubescens

Another American Pipit. A couple of them had me wondering when these guys molt plumage, as they looked a little "rough".

One treat were a small group of American Pipits flitting around the rip-rap that lines the road.  I don’t see Pipits that often, so it was nice to not only see them up close, but get some nice photos.

A great couple hours of birding, and after a winter where it seems I didn’t get any photos other than the Northern Saw-whet Owls I was finding, it was great to get some good photos today.  Spring is here!  And I can’t wait for what comes next, with May being absolutely wonderful here for migrating warblers, shorebirds, and many other species.

Paranoia when birding, and birding “rules” if you’re black…

When I’m birding I’m often amazed at the paranoia from land owners, law enforcement, and even the casual passerby.  There have been a number of times where the local sheriff or a policeman has stopped to ask what I’m doing.  The most memorable to me was several months after 9/11.  I was driving to work and I saw a very pale hawk in a tree.  I pulled over to the side of the road, got my camera out, and started taking pictures, right at the edge of my hometown.  After just a minute a policeman pulled in behind me with his lights on.  He approached the open window, where I still had my camera trained on the bird, and asked what I was taking pictures of.  I told him, but he certainly didn’t seem convinced.  He took my license and went back to his car, doing a background check to make sure I wasn’t a shady terrorist, plotting against the oh-so-high value targets in Brandon, South Dakota.  After at least 10 minutes, he returned, saying I “checked out” (whatever that meant), and then explained that after 9/11, they were cautious about people loitering in strange locations, taking photos,etc.

While annoying, the most paranoid group that birders come across are land owners.  I always respect private property, never venturing on private land without permission.  But that hasn’t stopped innumerable encounters with paranoid and sometimes angry land owners, wondering what I’m doing stopped by the side of a road, taking pictures of their land.  It’s to the point that even if I see a close, photogenic bird, I often won’t stop if I’m right near a farmstead or other home.  There have been so many times where the home/land owner would see a car stopped, and would come screaming down their driveway to check out what nefarious activities I was up to.

Just recently, I was taking photos on a very cold day near Pierre, in an area with few people, and on this day, few birds.  However, I saw a flock of geese circling in the distance, and when I got closer to check it out, noticed a pond off the road with a bubbler that was keeping the water open. The open water had attracted many geese and ducks.  I stopped, walked up to the fence line, and started taking photos.  As I did so, much to my surprise, a juvenile Gyrfalcon came whizzing in,  sending the flocks of geese and ducks into flight.  The Gyrfalcon did a couple of passes, not making any serious attacks, and then disappeared over a ridge.  As I was watching, I heard a pickup come roaring up the road.  Knowing what was coming, I stood there and kept taking photos of the still circling waterfowl, while the pickup driver got out and walked towards me.

What the hell are you doing, scaring away my ducks!, screamed the older man in a cowboy hat.  I calmly explained how I ended up here, and about  the Gyrfalcon that flew past and scared the birds.  This guy operated a hunting lodge, and had the bubbler installed in the lake to attract more waterfowl for his clients. Thus the reference to “his” ducks.  That’s the attitude you run into with so many landowners.  Simply being on the border of their land, with camera or binoculars in tow, is seen as a violation of their privacy.  As this guy finally calmed down and left, it dawned on me that I probably shouldn’t have told him about the Gyrfalcon.  There have been a number of publicized incidents where operators of hunting lodges in South Dakota have been found illegally killing raptors and other predators that DARE to feed on “their” gamebirds.

I wasn’t on this man’s land. As always, it pissed me off to have this paranoid guy yell at me, but…I’ve learned to let idiots like this vent while I calmly explain what I’m doing.  I admit I’ve gotten a certain amount of satisfaction over the years byof using a very calm demeanor in the face of raving lunatics, as staying calm and cool just seems to make them even more suspicious and mad!!

Today I came across a brief online article titled “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher“.  It’s written as a semi-humorous piece, but with many biting truths sprinkled throughout. South Dakota isn’t a place that’s could be characterized as a bastion of progressive attitudes on social issues.  I know how close-minded, paranoid, and yes, bigoted, many folks can be in a very “red” state, particularly in rural areas where I typically bird.  As a middle-aged white man, driving the requisite pickup truck for the state, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of paranoia and mistrust.  I imagine any level of paranoia directed towards me would be greatly magnified if I happened to have a different color of skin.


Snow a blessing in disguise, after long winter

Northern Saw-whet Owl

A flirty Northern Saw-whet Owl! OK, not really "flirty", but an owl that seemed more interested in his sleep than he did in my presence. He kept slowly opening and closing his eyes before eventually falling asleep while I watched.

It’s not been a terribly cold or terribly snowy winter in South Dakota, yet…it’s WINTER IN SOUTH DAKOTA!!!  It’s never all that fun here in winter.  However, finding Northern Saw-whet Owls for the first time ever in this area has been a really delightful surprise, something that’s kept me going.  I wanted to head down to Newton Hills State Park again yesterday to look for the owls.

The easiest way to find Saw-whet Owls isn’t to look for the owls themselves.  Not to be gross (it’s really not when you find it), but it’s owl poo and barf that you’re looking for!  The owls are often in such dense habitat that the easiest way to find them is to look for whitewash, their poo that may spot and streak a tree and the ground below a commonly used day roost.  You’ll also find owl pellets lying below a commonly used perch (not really “barf”, but you get the idea).  It was cold yesterday, but clear…at least when I left the house.  By the time I got to close to Newton Hills there were clouds, and the road was slightly damp as if there had been some precipitation.  When I got to Newton Hills itself…there was a fresh dusting a snow on the ground.

A DUSTING OF SNOW!!!  DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT A DISASTER THAT IS!?!?!?!   With a dusting of snow, the ground and trees have a coating of white.  With a coating of white, it’s impossible to see the whitewash, and thus very, very difficult to find Saw-whet Owls.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

The same owl shown above. This guy was the most photogenic of the three I found this day, at eye-level, and not so buried in the vegetation like some tend to be.

I gave it a half-hearted effort for half an hour without finding any owls.  I decided to head back home, dejected about the surprise dusting of snow that had ruined my plans.  However, in between Newton Hills and home is Lake Alvin, a reservoir with many cedar trees scattered around its shores.  Given that it hadn’t snowed at Lake Alvin, I thought I’d do a short search for owls, even though I’d never found one there before.

It was only 10 minutes of searching when I found the first really strong indication of an owl roost.  The whitewash below the tree (and streaking a few branches) was unmistakable, something that always gets your heart racing, because you KNOW an owl has been there at some point.  Then comes the real excitement…following the imaginary path straight up from the whitewash, hoping you’ll come eye-to-eye with a Saw-whet Owl.  BINGO!!  OWL!!! The first possibly roost that I found also yielded a beautiful owl, looking down at me from about 10 feet up in the small cedar tree.

Maybe the snow in Newton Hills was a blessing in disguise!  I’d never have looked at Lake Alvin if conditions were better at Newton Hills.  After enjoying the first owl for a few minutes, I continued the search, moving to the area directly below the dam.  I parked, began the search, and literally within 5 minutes of looking found another splotchy pile of whitewash below a small cedar tree.  The slow raise of the head, and BOOM!  Another Saw-whet Owl!  And what a find this one was!  He was at eye-level, the lowest of any Saw-whet Owl I’ve found this winter, and in such a location that you could get an almost clear look at the bird.  What a beauty!  And a sleeping beauty at that, as he kept seemingly nodding off and falling asleep as I watched and photographed him from close range.

A disaster of a day caused by snow had now resulted in me finding Northern Saw-whet Owls at Lake Alvin for the first time!  I continued the search, finding many obvious roost locations, but after the early success, I went another hour and a half without finding another owl.  I was tired from trudging up and down the hilly terrain, slogging through the brush, but I tried one more location on the north shore of the lake.  It didn’t take long before I found owl #3 of the day!  This one was about 14 feet up in a thick stand of slender cedars, on a steep slope.  Not the most photogenic of owls, but a wonderful way to end the day.

Thank you Mother Nature for the unexpected dusting of snow in Newton Hills!  I now have another local (and closer!!) Northern Saw-whet Owl “hot-spot” to help get me through long South Dakota winters!

(OK…YES, it’s another post about Saw-whet Owls!! But hey, March is around the corner!  With March comes the first migrants…hopefully I’ll be able to go birding for something else “fun” soon!!)

New threat to Bald Eagle populations?

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle attacks prey, toxins accumulating in the prey end up killing the eagle. Are we now about to see a repeat similar to DDT's effects on eagle populations prior to the 1970s?

You never know how the introduction of a new species to an ecosystem is going to alter the status quo.  Hydrilla is now found on every continent except South America and Antarctica, yet it’s unclear as to where the plant originated.  Some think it came from southeast Asia originally, some think it’s native to Australia.  and some think it’s African in origin.  What is clear is that it is an invasive in the United States, where it is now found in abundance in waterways of the southeastern United States after being introduced here in the 1950′s.  Climatically, much of the United States is suitable for it, and there’s little doubt it will continue to spread.

How does this relate to Bald Eagle populations?  It’s not the hydrilla itself, it’s a cyanobacteria that is often found growing on the undersides of hydrilla leaves. A recent paper published by University of Georgia researchers establishes a direct link between the cyanobacteria and the deaths of thousands of waterfowl and other birds in the southeastern United States.  The bacteria is new to science and highly unusual, but what is quite clear is that it produces a toxin that is lethal to birds.

It’s not just Eagles, it’s the waterfowl they prey upon that can succumb to the effects of the toxin.  For Bald Eagles, the route to exposure is through the consumption of waterfowl that feed on the hydrilla, and thus begin to accumulate the cyanobacteria toxin.  When the eagles eat the waterfowl, the toxin accumulates with them, eventually causing severe neurological dysfunction and death.

As I’ve started to link my “day job” (USGS scientist, studying and modeling land-use change) with my birding hobby (by modeling the effects of land-use change on bird populations), it’s become abundantly clear just how unpredictable the outcomes can be for man-made alterations of ecosystems.  A seemingly harmless introduction of an invasive species, an alteration of climate, or an alteration of land use can have unforeseen and devastating consequences on many components of the ecosystem.  Given that there isn’t a single square inch of the planet that’s not been affected by a human presence in some way, be it through climate change, land-use change, or introduction of invasives, it literally is a case where every location on the planet is an (unintended) experiment in progress.  In every location on the planet, our alteration of the environment is causing some form of response within an ecosystem.

In this case, it’s an iconic, highly visible and highly popular species that is suffering as a result, but it’s a story that’s being played out daily all over the planet.  It’s sad to think that a species that has come so far since the ban of DDT is again starting to succumb to toxins in its environment.

Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Units!! Get Yours Now!!

Northern Saw-whet Owl with Mouse

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OK, it’s not a Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit.  It’s a Northern Saw-whet Owl…again.  Yes, I know.  Half (or more) of my blog posts lately have been about Northern Saw-whet Owls.  Have you been to South Dakota in winter?  I think we’re just lucky we have ANY living, breathing birds to find, much less a bird as fun to find and watch as Saw-whet Owls.

It was a slow birding day down in Newton Hills State Park, but I did find one Saw-whet Owl.  I was hoping to eventually find one who was “thawing” a mouse like this.  Saw-whet Owls are small, so small that even a full mouse is too much of a meal for them!  A Saw-whet will typically eat half of a mouse in one meal, and then cache the rest of the mouse in the crook of a tree, for later consumption.  Sometimes they may even catch “extra” mice to cache for later meals.

Last night it got down to about zero, and it only got up to 15 for an afternoon high.  As you can thus imagine, any cached mice are going to be frozen solid.  Before a Saw-whet can eat them, they have to thaw them out, holding them like they’re incubating an egg and using their own body heat to thaw it before eating it.

Fun to see, and nice to get a photograph of the behavior!

A Four-owl (species) morning

Northern Saw-whet Owl

A Northern Saw-whet Owl cracking his eyes open a bit on a gorgeous, sunny South Dakota day.

Another nice day “owling” down around Newton Hills State Park.  For several hours of walking around it was pretty darned productive, with the highlight (again!) being owls.

I started out looking for Northern Saw-whet Owls around the “Horse Camp” area, and the most reliable bird (using the same roost or roost area routinely) was hiding a bit, but I was able to find him.  I’ve seen him about 2 out of every 3 trips now, and while he’s not using the exact same roost, I’ve been able to find him usually within about 30-50 feet of his original location.  A nice way to start the day!  There’s another Saw-whet near this location, but he hasn’t been nearly as reliable, and again today he was absent.

I left the Horse Camp and headed up the hill towards the park itself, when I saw a large “lump” in the trees off to the right.  I stopped and put the binoculars on it, and it was a Barred Owl, a nice sight for me as it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen one in Newton Hills.

I headed down towards Lake Lakota and again started looking through the cedars for Saw-whets.  I have yet to again find the one that was mere feet from the parking lot, but decided to give a thorough search through the cedars on the north shore of the lake.  I ended up finding 3 species of owls in a couple of hours of bush-wacking, a nice trade-off to me!  The first was a after about an hour, with another Saw-whet near the shore of the northeastern corner of the lake.  This could have been the same one that was near the parking lot a couple of weeks ago, but perhaps not, as it was a decent hike to get back to his thick stand of cedars.

I then went over to the north side of the tree-line, near the top of  the hill, and was rewarded with a Great Horned Owl and a Long-eared Owl in quick succession, only about 5 minutes apart.  It’s the second time I’ve found the Great Horned in this location, but the first time I’ve seen a Long-eared.  What surprised me was that the Long-eared was relatively close to the Great Horned, within a 50-yard hike.  He was pretty hidden back in a very thick, mature group of cedars, otherwise I think the Great Horned would take offense to his presence (or more likely, would just eat him!).

A gorgeous, 40-degree day (that’s gorgeous for South Dakota in February), with plenty of sun, exercise, and owls!!