Articles for the Month of February 2017

SuperB owl Sunday!!

I hear there was a football game today.  I don’t really care about the NFL, but that was the rumor.  What I HAVE been made aware of is that this is SuperB Owl Sunday.  I love owls. Many of my most memorable photos over the years have been of owls.  So with that…some of my favorite owl photos in honor of SuperB Owl Sunday!

Snowy Owl - Bubo scandiacus

This photo of a yawning Snowy Owl was a surprisingly easy “catch”. I’ve seen Snowy Owls on a number of occasions in the central part of the state, but only a couple of times near home. This one hung out in a busy area on the west side of Sioux Falls a few winters ago.

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

As opposed to the Snowy Owl above, an “easy” catch, this is one I had to really work for. People always suspected there were Northern Saw-whet Owls around Sioux Falls in winter. They’re hard to find though, given that they like to roost in thick evergreen stands during the day. 2 years ago I spent many winter days looking through thick stands of cedar trees. After about a month of looking, I finally started finding some, including this beauty that gave me a uncharacteristically uncluttered view.

Elf Owl - Micrathene whitneyi

We LOVE Arizona. We’ve visited a number of times, and one species I always wanted to see was an Elf Owl, the smallest owl in North America. There was a massive saguaro cactus at our favorite B&B outside of Tucson, one where Elf Owls were known to nest. One morning on vacation, I got up before dawn, and was rewarded with an incredible opportunity when this little guy flew in and landed in a bush at the base of the nest saguaro. He stared at me from incredibly close range for about a minute, before fluttering up into the nest hole.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

One of the most wonderful bird or wildlife experiences I’ve ever had. About 10 years ago, northern Minnesota saw an unprecedented “irruption” of northern owls moving into the are in the winter. I made the long drive to Sax-Zim Bog northwest of Duluth to find them. This is a Northern Hawk Owl, a very rare find in the lower 48 states, but on this trip I saw over 30. This one was sitting in a bush next to a gravel road. I watched him from 10 feet away for half an hour, with him even nodding off and falling asleep at times. Wonderful experience, and still the only place I’ve ever seen Northern Hawk Owls.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

From the same trip as the Northern Hawk Owl above, a Great Grey Owl resting on a snowy tree branch. Beautiful, massive owls, I saw over 30 of these guys as well on that trip. Sax-Zim Bog also remains the only place I’ve ever seen this species.

Long-eared Owl - Asio otus

10 years ago in November, my young son and I were taking a walk in the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park across the street from where we live. As we were walking through park, suddenly a pair of large owls flushed from the cover of a cedar tree along the side of the road. We continued walking, and we found more…and more…and more. They were Long-eared Owls, and at times during the November and December, there were up to 18 individuals roosting in the cedar trees in one small part of the park. I’ve seen the species on occasion outside of that winter, but in every case, they’ve been very “spooky” and shy. What made this large group of owls so remarkable is how incredibly tame they were. They allowed very close approach and photographs for two months, before slowly disappearing as the heart of winter hit.

Short-eared Owl - Asio flammeus

It always pays to have your camera with you, even during short trips as mundane as the drive to and from work. One winter day I was driving home from work, taking gravel roads as I often do, and I came across this lone Short-eared Owl sitting on a fence post. It’s a species I have seen many times on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and elsewhere in the central and western part of South Dakota, but I’d never seen one around Sioux Falls.

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

Our most common owl in southeastern South Dakota is the Eastern Screech Owl, a species that is often found right in the heart of urban areas, provided large trees and nesting cavities are available. The vast majority in our part of South Dakota are the “Gray morph”, but on one birding trip east of my home town of Brandon, I ran into this gorgeous red morph. There’s obviously a little genetic pool of red-morph Eastern Screech Owls in that area, because since this day I have seen several other red-morph owls.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia

This is the cover photo on my blog, so of course I must include it! This inquisitive yet shy little guy is a Burrowing Owl. I found him on Antelope Island, near the Great Salt Lake outside of Salt Lake City. One of my favorite photos of all time.

Yellowstone Winter – Geothermal Features

I’m still trying to find to time to process photos and video from Yellowstone. I only had half a day to walk around the Upper Geyser Basin at Yellowstone, but it was really magical. I started walking the basin a bit before dawn, and it was 2 hours before I finally ran into another human being.  The only sounds that you heard were the gurgling of the Firehole River, and the hissing, bubbling, roaring sounds of the many geothermal features in the area.  A wonderful morning, and a morning I thought I’d try something different (for me, at least).

I’m still a neophyte with regard to video. Even with a DSLR that shoots wonderful video, I very rarely actually try it. I did use my Canon 70d for some video in Yellowstone last week, but most of the time when I wanted video instead of still photographs, I found myself using my iPhone 7.  I frankly don’t use my iPhone for much of anything, really, and haven’t ever really used it for photography or video. Last week though I quickly found just how wonderful video quality can be using an iPhone. I’ll still always love shooting with my DSLR, particularly given my focus on birds and need for a long lens, but it’s nice knowing that I’ll have good video capabilities as well, just by carrying my phone.

Here are several videos of geothermal features in the Upper Geyser Basin and in the Fountain Paint Pots area of Yellowstone.  So beautiful in winter, and the geothermal features have such a different look in the extreme cold.

This one is “Red Spouter”, a unique little hot spring/fumarole from the Fountain Paint Pots region. It’s a very new feature geologically. It didn’t exist until the massive Hebgen Lake earthquake of 1959, an event that changed a lot of the geothermal features in the park.

Fountain Paint Pots is adjacent to Red Spouter.  I’ve seen the area in summer, when there’s more water available and it’s more like boiling water than boiling “mud”.  It was rather cool to see the thick bubbling mud on a cold winter’s day.

The highlight of the trip was just after I arrived at the Snow Lodge near Old Faithful.  The only way into the area in winter is by snow mobile or snow coach. I took a snow coach, and arrived at the Snow Lodge just as the sun was setting.  We were told Old Faithful was likely to erupt in about 30 minutes, so I checked in, grabbed my camera, and headed for the geyser.  The sun had already set, with just a bit of light still in the western horizon.  I was rather shocked to find that I was all alone, rather stunning for someone who has been in Yellowstone many times during the summer months, and was used to throngs of people in the Old Faithful area.  The eruption started, and I still was literally the only person watching. My only company?  A pair of coyotes that loped in and started hunting around the boardwalks.  A magical, solitary moment I’ll never forget.

Castle Geyser is a feature we’ve seen several times before in summer during our Yellowstone visits. It’s always interesting, with a large cone structure and some beautifully colored bacterial mats growing in the hot water runoff.  However, we’ve never seen it erupt. Seeing it actually erupt on a morning where the temperatures were about 10-below zero was truly wonderful.  The noise, the incredibly tall plume of steam, and again, having it all to myself…a great treat.

Morning Glory Pool in the Upper Geyser Basin is such an iconic feature, and I had to see it in winter. It’s only about a mile walk down from Old Faithful, and while the boardwalks and paths weren’t maintained, enough snowshoe and cross-country skiing traffic had occurred that it was “walkable”, even without snowshoes. Morning Glory is always beautiful, but alas, even in the 20 or so years since we’ve been going to Yellowstone, you can see a difference in the colors.  It’s not as vibrant any more, due to visitors throwing debris in the pool that interferes with hot water movement into the pool. Still a beautiful feature though, particularly against a backdrop of snow and ice.

It’s not just the big iconic geothermal features that are an attraction in the Upper Geyser Basin. There are SO many little hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles that at times it’s hard to know where to look.  This little feature is called “Scissors Spring”.  Certainly a high-temperature feature, as it was vigorously boiling the entire time I watched.

One of the first erupting geysers I encountered on this cold January morning was tiny “Little Squirt” geyser.  What it was lacking in size, it made up for in “spunk”! A fun little geyser to watch.

One of the bigger eruptions that occurred while I was there, Grotto Geyser put on a nice early morning show when temperatures were still very cold.  It was fun watching the hot water shoot up into the 10-below air, and come falling back down as a puffy, steamy cloud.  A fun eruption to watch, and one that continued for quite some time.

Another little feature, called “Ear Spring” — It’s not just the geothermal features themselves that are cool when you’re walking through the geyser basins.  The beautifully colored bacterial mats that grow in the hot water can be truly spectacular.  A beautiful little area of these were found right around Ear Spring.

This is one of the first videos I shot this morning, a panorama of the entire Upper Geyser basin, right as the sun was coming up. This one gives a great idea of the isolation, and the beauty, of winter in the area.

Finally, a video of the aptly named Firehole River that winds through the Upper Geyser Basin. There are numerous geothermal features right along the shores of the Firehole, with warm water keeping the river clear of ice all year round. The warm water in the river was certainly an attractant to wildlife, with Canada Geese, Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and Mallard all birds I saw while walking through the Upper Geyser Basin.

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