Articles

Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit (CEMDU)

The calendar is changing over to October, which means fall migration is in full swing.  It’s not a cheery time for a birder in South Dakota!  Winters are long, and bird species and numbers are both WAY down compared to the other three seasons. However, there are a few bright spots!  What “saved” winter for me a few winters ago was the sheer delight in finding a species I’d never seen around southeastern South Dakota.

Up until that winter (3 years ago, 2015-2016), the only place I’d seen a Northern Saw-whet Owl was along the Missouri River near Pierre. Birders there found that they liked to winter in the cedar trees along the river. There are a few areas around my part of South Dakota that also have thick stands of cedar, so I thought I’d spend some time that winter searching for the little guys. It was very discouraging at first.  It’s not easy searching through the thick cedar stands! I started in mid-November, searching for signs…the “white-wash” of their poop that you can find on the ground and branches below a daytime roost, or actual regurgitated pellets.  I DID occasionally find owl-sign, but for a good month…no owls.

Then in late December 2015, I went to Newton Hills State Park. Birders had reported hearing a Northern Saw-whet Owl during a Christmas Bird Count, so I thought I’d leave before dawn, and spend several hours looking.  It was a miserable day…cloudy with a very thick, icy fog, and I got a later start than I had planned. By the time I got there, the sun had already risen, and I was sure I wasn’t going to hear any calling owls. However, the fog was SO thick, that it was still relatively dark and gloomy when I arrived. It was only moments after stepping out of my car that I heard a calling Saw-whet Owl!  I headed in the general direction, and by the time I got close, the owl had stopped calling. I slowly made my way into the cedar thicket, and almost immediately found fresh looking signs that an owl had been there. White-wash on the ground as well as pellets!  I then slowly raised my head, hoping to see an owl sitting in the branches directly above the whitewash.  No such luck!  DAMN….IT.  After spending so much time looking, I was getting frustrated and was convinced I’d never actually find one.  I turned around to head out of the thicket, took about 3 steps, and walked into a commotion just above my head.  Owl!  He was only about 6 feet away from all the whitewash, but in a different spot, and I had accidentally caused him to flush when I walked past.

AAAARRGGGGHHH!!! I was at once both happy that I actually got a glimpse of an owl, but frustrated that I missed seeing him before I got so close he flushed. No photograph. Sigh. I continued the search though, and about 15 minutes later, found another location with whitewash and pellets.  And this time…success!  I looked directly above the whitewash, and staring back down at me from about 10 feet up in the cedar tree was a gorgeous little Saw-whet Owl!

I had a blast the rest of that winter. I found several more in the Newton Hills Area, and also 4 more near Lake Alvin just south of Sioux Falls. Overall that winter I found at least a dozen different Northern Saw-whet Owls!  What was striking was how incredibly tame they were. That first owl on that foggy morning was the only one I saw that winter that actually flushed. Several times I was able to approach an owl and get mere feet away, and instead of flushing, I was typically greeted by a disinterested yawn.

This photo is one of my favorites from that winter. Northern Saw-whet Owls are tiny critters.  Their prey is often small voles and mice, but even those are too much for them to consume in one sitting. They will often catch a vole or mouse, eat half of it, and cache the other half in the nook of a tree branch. They then come back later and retrieve the cache, but in our cold winters, they have to thaw it before finishing their meal.  Thus, I’d read you could sometimes find a Northern Saw-whet Owl “defrosting” a mouse.  One morning I was lucky enough to witness such an event, as this grumpy-looking guy was busy defrosting breakfast when I came across him.

A “Compact Endothermic Mouse Defrosting Unit”!!  One of my favorite memories from that winter. As the weather turns colder here, I’m hoping to again find these handsome little birds this winter.

Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus

A Northern Saw-whet Owl, defrosting it’s morning breakfast.

Birding the Bog! Sax-Zim in Minnesota

It’s been a relatively “birdy” winter in South Dakota. We’ve had really high numbers of winter finches. I’ve certainly never had more Pine Siskins at my Feeders, and I’ve also had Common Redpolls in my yard for only the third time ever. Both White-winged and Red Crossbills have also been around in select locations (always a rarity). It’s been a GREAT year for Snowy Owls across the northern U.S., and while normally I have to travel to the central or northern parts of South Dakota to see them, I came across three different Snowy Owls within 15 miles of home this winter!

A pretty good winter, given how bleak birding can be in South Dakota at this time of year, but I still had the birding itch to see “more”.  All winter long, I had pondered making the long trip to Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota to look for owls and other boreal “goodies”, but kept putting it off. It IS a long jaunt and requires a hefty time commitment…a six+ hour drive from home.  This weekend was going to be my last chance to make the trip before the winter ended, so I finally pulled the trigger on a trip. It’s SUCH a special birding location and one where I want to get the most of my few chances to visit, so much to the bewilderment of my wife, I decided to leave a 2:00 AM Saturday to maximize the my birding time in the area.  The forecast called for a gloomy, gray Saturday…PERFECT for owling.

The forecast was wrong. Saturday was gorgeous and sunny, with temperatures over 40 degrees.  Not great for the owls who seem to be less active on such days. After getting up so early and driving so far, I was a bit disheartened after birding the entire day Saturday. The only owl I had seen was a Northern Hawk Owl from a very long distance. I’ll never complain about seeing a Northern Hawk Owl, given how few and far opportunities are to see the species in the lower 48 states, but it was a slow and overall disappointing day nonetheless.

Sunday made up for it. A gloomy, gray day, it certainly did seem to bring out the owls, and I had decent luck with other species as well.  Great Gray Owls are one of the big draws for birders in the Bog, and I was able to see three on Sunday, including one at very close range. Two more Northern  Hawk Owls (none very close), plenty of Gray Jays, Ruffed Grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, and even a glimpse of a Pine Marten that had been visiting a feeder complex in the area…it ended up being a wonderful day of birding!  I struck out on a couple of target birds…Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpecker…but that just gives me an excuse to make the trip again next winter!  Below are a few photos from the day.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

The best photo opportunity of the day was this Great Gray Owl. Evidently he had been actively feeding for a few days alongside “Owl Avenue” (aptly named!). It was about 10 o’clock in the morning when I found him, and while I didn’t get to see him catch or eat anything, I was able to get some nice photos and video. Another photographer who was there told me that he had already caught 4 voles that morning! The same photographer said he was watching the Great Gray the evening before, and it surprisingly went after a muskrat! That’s a VERY large prey item for a Great Gray, but evidently he was able to catch it and somehow swallow it whole.

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa

A Great Gray Owl relaxing at the back of a forest clearing. I ended up watching him for over an hour, and he never left this perch. He spent most of that time preening, not actively looking for prey.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

Not the greatest photo in the world, but it does convey what all of my Northern Hawk Owl sightings were like on this trip! I came across three different Northern Hawk Owls, but alas, all of them were some distance away. Given the rarity of a Northern Hawk Owl in the lower 48 states, I will DEFINITELY take it though!

Gray Jay - Perisoreus canadensis

Photo of a Gray Jay, one of my favorite species to watch.  It seemed like every time I came across the species, it was a pair of birds, and one pair was clearly collecting nesting material as I watched them.  

Hairy Woodpecker -  Leuconotopicus villosus

Not the woodpecker I was after, but I’ll take it. I was looking for Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, two species that were supposedly around in decent numbers this winter, but I struck out on both. One of the things that’s really changed about Sax-Zim Bog since I first went there 14 years ago is the number of feeder complexes that local residents have set up. This guy was on a long-established feeder complex along Admiral Road, but there are now at least a dozen such areas scattered throughout the bog. Given the warm, pleasant weather when I was there, activity at the feeders was pretty slow, but I still was able to see Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks, Common Redpoll, Gray Jays, and several other species.

Northern Hawk Owl - Surnia ulula

NOT from this trip, but a better representation of a Northern Hawk Owl from Sax-Zim Bog. This was from my very first trip to Sax-Zim Bog during the famed owl irruption of the winter of 2004/2005. My introduction to the Bog came through a friend at work, who had heard about incredible numbers of northern owls being found in the bog. As someone who had only started birding a few years before, in 2000, I had never seen a Great Gray Owl or Northern Hawk Owl. I was torn about whether to go or not, as I didn’t know what my chances actually were to see an owl, and it IS a hefty time commitment to drive 6 hours there and back. I did decide to spend 2 days there though in December 2004, and it remains the greatest birding trip of my life! On that first day, I saw over THIRTY Great Gray Owls, and nearly the same number of Northern Hawk Owls! This was one of the first Northern Hawk Owls I found, and the first photos of the species that I’d ever taken. It definitely remains the best series of Northern Hawk Owl photos I have! This guy was sitting at eye level in a low bush, RIGHT next to the road. He was incredibly tolerant of my presence, and I had him to myself for well over an hour as I watched (and photographed) him from extremely close range. How close? I was in my car, not wanting to get out and disturb him, and found that I was actually too close for my camera lens to focus! My Canon 400 mm lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 12 feet, and I was only about 10 feet away as I watched him! To capture the photos I actually scooted over to the passenger seat, before returning to the driver’s seat and watching him preen, sleep, and generally ignore me over the next hour. One of the most magical birding moments of my life, and this photo more than other shows why I’ve continued to return to the Bog every few years since 2004!!!

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.

Saw-whets are a’ comin’!!! For now, a drawing…

Colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl - Aegolius acadicus - By Terry Sohl

A colored pencil of drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl. I couldn’t wait until they arrived for the winter, so in the meantime sat down and drew one.

Last winter was a blast.  OK, that’s not something you typically say when you live in frigid South Dakota, but I really enjoyed last winter, and am looking forward to the cold weather again.  The reason?  Northern Saw-whet Owls!! Prior to last winter, I’d seen them on rare occasion, when I went to the Pierre area. It was a quite a few years ago when birders in the area started looking for them in cedar tree thickets near the Missouri River.  It takes quite a bit of work to find one however.  Looking for Saw-whet owls typically involves bush-whacking through dense cedar thickets, looking on the ground and on tree branches for the tell-tale “white-wash” that accumulates when the little owls use the same roost day after day.

When I say I’d seen them on “rare occasion”, it was literally ALWAYS finding a bird that someone else had found.  Oh sure, I’d given it the ol’ college try.  Prior to last winter, there were a number of times that I myself would go tromping through cedar thickets in Pierre, trying to find the little owls.  I was great at finding roosts where they USED to be!  As for finding a live owl?  Not so much.

I think people always suspected Northern Saw-whet Owls were much more widely distributed in South Dakota in the winter, but actual reports were few, likely due tot he effort involved in actually finding one.  Last winter I was determined to 1) actually find my “own” Saw-whet owl, and 2) do so right here near Sioux Falls, rather than making the 3 1/2 hour drive to Pierre, where they’re known to be found.  It wasn’t very encouraging at first.  And when I say “at first”, I mean there were probably about 10 fruitless trips trudging through cedar tree thickets, looking for owls.  The story was much like my attempts in Pierre…I was GREAT at finding owl pellets and whitewash, but wasn’t finding the owls themselves.

That all changed in January when I finally found my first Northern Saw-whet Owl in southeastern South Dakota.  It was at Newton Hills State Park, and he wasn’t alone!  On that truly magnificent day, I found not one, but four different Saw-whet Owls, all in the typical cedar thicket habitat that was similar to where they had been found for years in Pierre.  At least according to “eBird” reports, these were the first Saw-whet Owls reported in this part of the state.  The rest of the winter was great, going back to visit previously found Saw-whets (they tend to have roosting site fidelity, using the same sites for many days in a row), and finding new ones.  I ended up finding a few more at Newton Hills that winter, and then also started finding them  around Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls.  For the winter, at least 9 individual over-wintering owls were found.

Just in the past few days bird banders in the area reported capturing and banding the first migrating Saw-whet owls of the season.  They’re here!  Or, at least they’re starting to arrive!  I’ll probably wait a couple of weeks before heading out to actually look for one, giving them a little more time to arrive, giving a little more time for the whitewash and pellet evidence to accumulate.  In the meantime, last weekend in my excitement for the coming winter, I did a colored pencil drawing of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, using a photo of one from last winter as a guide.

I can’t wait!  The owls are coming! The owls are coming!!  🙂

Owl Fledgling Video

Not anything of mine, but ran across this video of an young owl having a standoff with a police officer and had to share…

http://gazette.com/owl-with-an-attitude-wins-face-off-with-colorado-deputy/article/1556220

Great way to spend an afternoon…

Burrowing Owl - Hovering - Athene cunicularia

Hovering Burrowing Owl, checking me out as I visit a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in South Dakota

I’ve been busy since back from vacation, getting back in the swing of things with work, catching up on yard work, etc.  Yesterday I had a chance to get out and bird however, and decided to spend much of the time on one of my favorite spots in the world…a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands south of Pierre.  As a birder, I’m always attracted to the birdlife around a prairie dog town, but it’s also the other life, from rattlesnakes, the prairie dogs themselves, even the insect life.  Prairie dog towns always just seem so “alive” compared to the surrounding grasslands and farmland.

The prairie dog town I like to visit is near Richland Wildlife Area.  There’s a rather non-descript entrance, a cattle guard and and opening in the barbed wire fence that allows you to drive the mile or so back to the prairie dog town itself.  It really doesn’t matter what time of year I visit, the area always seems full of life.  In winter, it’s nice seeing the activity of the prairie dogs themselves, seemingly defying the harsh weather.  Raptors, particularly Ferruginous Hawks, are also a great draw for me in the winter.  However, in summertime, it’s Burrowing Owls that are my favorite attraction around a prairie dog town.

Burrowing Owls aren’t hard to find in South Dakota.  If you find a decent sized prairie dog town, you will very likely find Burrowing Owls.  The problem is simply vast reduction in the number of prairie dog towns compared to historical times.  Ranchers continue to view prairie dogs as pests…despite studies that show grazing is MORE nutritious around prairie dog towns (a reason Bison used to often frequent prairie dog towns).  Because of that, there’s few creatures more persecuted in South Dakota than the prairie dog.  It’s a FAR too common event for me to visit a long-time prairie dog town, only to find degrading burrows and no prairie dog towns, as the land owner, or even more often, the state itself, has poisoned the animals to “protect” rancher interests.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cuniculari

One of the most common ways to see a Burrowing Owl in South Dakota…one sitting on a fence post near a prairie dog town.

When I do find an active prairie dog town however, I can spend hours watching the wildlife.  At this time of year, Burrowing Owls have young to feed, and that was certainly the case yesterday.  In the area of the prairie dog town I was at, I saw two different families, each with 2 adults and 3 fledglings.  The adults are understandably protective at this time of year, scolding visitors (be they a stray coyote, another bird, or a curious photographer like myself).  It’s quite cool to watch a little family of Burrowing Owls at a burrow entrance, and how they react when danger is afoot. The adults take immediate action to scold the intruder, while the fluffy fledglings quickly waddle down into the burrow.  I don’t get so close as to greatly disturb the Burrowing Owl families, but even at some distance, the adults will often fly over and scold me, sometimes even hovering right by me and glaring a glare meant to intimidate!!

A great day on the grasslands.  Vacations are nice, but I do so love getting back home to South Dakota…

Owl Mobbing by Songbirds

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

Red-phase Eastern Screech Owl, trying to doze. His neighbors weren’t letting him though, with several different kinds of songbirds scolding him and occasionally flying at him.

Chalk this one up under the category of “something you hear about but haven’t seen”.  You always hear about songbirds “mobbing” owls, but it’s not something I’ve personally witnessed more than a handful of times.  Yesterday after birding, on my way home, I thought I’d do one quick drive up “Spook Road”, a road east of my hometown of Brandon that follows a little creek, and has some nice riparian veg and trees.  It’s been a good birding spot in the past.

As I drove slowly down the road with my windows open, I first heard the scolding of a Blue Jay, and then a Chickadee and Robin that were joining in.  With multiple species all scolding something, I figured it was likely an owl or other bird of prey. I stopped the car and looked around, but didn’t see anything at first.  But then a Brown Thrasher came into the picture and went flying at something, banking off at a sharp angle right before it got to its quarry.  There was a red-phase Eastern Screech Owl sitting on a branch, the target of the scolding by the mob of songbirds.

Two things were interesting about it, one, of course, being the mobbing behavior.  There was also a Swainson’s Thrush hanging around showing interest, a White-breasted Nuthatch, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a few others.  It did make me wonder how much of a threat Screech Owls are to all these species.  I’m sure they will take a songbird when they get a chance, but I don’t think a Screech Owl would take a bird the size of a Blue Jay.  It didn’t seem to matter though, as it seemed like every bird in the area was intent on driving him away.  The owl, for his part, didn’t seem to care.  In fact, for most of the time he was being scolded, he had his eyes closed.

The second interesting thing was that it was a red-phase Eastern Screech Owl.  The gray phase if overwhelmingly more common in South Dakota, and in fact, the ONLY place I’ve ever seen a red-phase screech owl here is…right on Spook Road, within a mile of this same bird.  It’s been a handful of times where I’ve encountered them in this area now, so obviously the red-phase gene is sticking around in this particular spot.

%d bloggers like this: