Tag Archives: raptor

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!!)

Woo-hoo! Another New Yard Bird! Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk - Accipiter striatus

Another new yard bird! A Sharp-shinned Hawk on my fence, right after he finished off eating another of my yard birds.

Woo-hoo!  I just finish posting about one new yard bird, go look at my feeders, and I see another new yard bird!  Except this time, the new yard bird was eating one of my other birds!  This is a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  They’re pretty well known for targeting birds that come to feeders.  Smart fellows.  There have been multiple times where I’ve been watching feeders or small groups of birds, and one of these guys has swooped in and caught one of the.

Very cool birds!  I’m glad my wife wasn’t around to see the carnage though…don’t think she’d have appreciated the Sharp-shinned Hawk like I did.

Incredible Snowy Owl Winter Continues

Snowy Owl Portrait

Another incredible day for Snowy Owls here in South Dakota. Some of them are incredibly tame, such as this guy, who I watched at very close range (obviously!) for quite a long time. He couldn't have cared less, and napped with his eyes closed for most of that time!!

In late December, I twice went down to the Lake Andes area in south-central South Dakota, to look for the incredible numbers of Snowy Owls being seen.  Both days were very memorable, and I saw around 30 different owls the one day, all in a relatively small area.  I really hadn’t been out birding since then, but took today off and went out to try my luck in the central part of the state.

Where I go in winter in the central part of the state is always incredible for raptors, and today was no exception.  I started near “Presho, drove north, through the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, and up to the area around Lake Oahe north of Pierre.  There were all the “usuals”…several dozen Rough-legged Hawks, quite a few Northern Harriers and Red-tailed Hawks, more Golden Eagles than I think I’ve seen in one day (maybe 15 or so?), and a handful of Bald Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, and Prairie Falcons.  Also one Merlin.

Snowy Owl

Another Snowy, doing his "king of the roost" pose.

THAT part is a typical winter trip in that area.  But again, the story this winter continues to be the big numbers of Snowy Owls.   They weren’t concentrated like they were in the Lake Andes area back in December, but I still saw 7 different Snowy Owls, a number which in ANY year would be a truly awesome day for them.   They were scattered around, but in one spot near the shores of Lake Oahe, there were three, including 2 that were completely unconcerned about my presence.  One was sitting on a billboard, and after watching from a distance for awhile, I drove by, then parked RIGHT by the billboard.   For the most part he just kept on sleeping.  I watched him at very close range for quite some time…quite a treat to be THAT close to a wild Snowy, where you can see all the little details in his feathers, his brilliant yellow eyes (on the occasions he opened them!) and those massive, powerful talons.

Terrific day!  Certainly THE year folks will always remember for Snowy Owls!

“Best Day Ever”

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