Monday, March 25, 2013

Great Gray Owl

Seeing an owl is always special…doesn’t happen often.

Reports of a very sociable Great Gray Owl along a rural road near Mauston, Wisconsin were numerous and exciting.  Postings on the Internet from late February and into March reported his comings and goings almost daily. Other photographers were posting great photos and I was envious to get my own. The troubling fact, though, was a three-hour drive across the state giving no guarantees of him being there when I arrived.

I went anyway.  He was that special.

Great Gray Owls, like other owls, are nocturnal.  To find one to photograph in the daylight is exceptional.  You have to be lucky.  It made me wonder, though, “What is wrong with him?” Something was keeping him exposed during the day and, sadly, it could be he was starving.

Owls hunt by sight, sound and stealth.  Facial discs gather sound and funnel it to asymmetrical ears for locating prey.  Their night vision is excellent with those big eyes.  Owl wings are nearly silent in flight. They are highly evolved nighttime hunters.

If he wasn’t finding enough food at night, he had no choice but to hunt in the daytime. A thick crust of ice on top of the snow might be foiling his hunting efforts, however.  Warm days have reduced a two-foot snow cover down to four inches in this Aldo Leopold Sand Counties area of Wisconsin.  He might be able to sound locate his prey beneath the snow, but he may not be able to break through the ice crust to capture it.  I can’t prove that. There could be other reasons for his unusual daytime hunting behavior; it’s just my observation.  What is more interesting, though, is his acceptance of humans.

Ten cars parked along this narrow country road with an unknown number of people inside, watching for any sign of this very special owl. Other drivers slowly passed through with owl-hopefulness, but lacked time or patience. License plates showed most cars were from Wisconsin, but Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota plates were present, too.  This owl watch has been going on for a month now, so the number of birders able to catch a glimpse of him, and the unfortunate numbers that missed out, would be hard to estimate.

Everyone I talked to was so anxious to see him, but he was a no-show on Friday March 22nd.  We waited eight hours for him, but when the light faded, we had to leave.   

Disappointed but not beaten, I came back the next day.

He showed up on Saturday…blue sky and sunlight!

He didn’t disappoint!

On Saturday, almost everyone was out of his or her car with cameras.  You didn’t need binoculars. Twenty feet high and twenty feet away, perched on a limb, he was big, beautiful and in your face.

Something way up high caught his attention… did something in the distance.  

His facial discs funneled a sound coming from the south. 

In the past thirty days he’s posed for ten thousand pictures and excited hundreds of birders.  If owls enjoy ‘rock stars status’ he has it.

Then he quietly left us for a tree far away.   After putting on a fantastic show of owl bravery, co-operation and natural beauty…no one left disappointed.  His fans loved him. He briefly looked back, then disappear behind the tree line.
I wished him well.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Feather Tailed Stories (Book)

I've compiled thirty-three of my favorite Feather Tailed Stories from the past year into an 8"x10" coffee table bookThere is a softcover and a hardcover paper edition. Also available is an ebook for iPad/iPhone for only $0.99.  You can see a preview at: .
You might find a discount coupon, too, at: .


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Spring is arriving late to Wisconsin this year. March is feeling like February and new snow is falling on old snow. 

A migrating bird would struggle to find food here.  Besides the snow, the lingering cold has kept the tree buds from swelling.  Tree buds are a food source for the early-arriving males. Males come early to establish territories and the emerging tree buds are important to their survival. 

While I wait for Wisconsin temperatures to rise and the spring migration to peak, here is a Lincoln’s Sparrow from a warmer time and place.

It’s been noted that the Lincoln’s Sparrow is shy, elusive and a difficult bird to approach.  That may be true, but I found this one to be remarkably accommodating. Wary, but unafraid, he watched me…one eye at a time.  Swiveling his head from left to right and back again, he was alert to all threats.  Approaching him slowly, a few feet at a time, we shared the warm sunshine of San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in Southeastern Arizona. 

Widespread and common, it’s likely you’ve already seen a Lincoln’s Sparrow. 

Recognizing a Lincoln’s Sparrow from all the other sparrows is more difficult though. They’re ground feeders.  The Lincoln’s Sparrow prefers to forage alone, so he’s seldom seen in flocks, but that is hardly a helpful clue to identifying one.  

To identify sparrows you have to pay close attention to feather detail. Sparrows are confusingly similar…you learn by trial and error. It’s not easy! 

When you get it…you’ve learned something new…something worth knowing…a reward for paying attention.    


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Peregrine Falcon (revisited)

I was happy to find a Peregrine Falcon at home when I visited the Port Washington Generating Station recently. I believe this is Ives, an adult male living part time at the generating station and also at the University of Wisconsin Campus in Milwaukee.

He is wearing a violet or purple band on his right leg, so I believe it should be Ives. I gleaned that information from the WE Energies website:
I watched him for a half an hour as he stretched, scratched and sunned himself on the railing. Then he flew to a nest box. 

I’m positive I heard excited calls coming from the box when he entered, but I never saw another bird or nestling.  The nest box was off to my left, so I might have missed a quick altercation or a greeting.  I saw a Peregrine Falcon’s head showing over the nest box, but I couldn’t be sure if it was Ives’ head once again.

WE Energies has nest cameras recording the activities of Peregrine Falcons at several of their generating stations around the upper Midwest.  The Port Washington Generating Station’s camera is showing little activity to date, according to the website:, but it’s worth monitoring if you care to see what might happen.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Horned Lark

March weather in Wisconsin can be tough on seed eating birds.  Farm fields covered with snow or made chemically weed free to begin with, do little to support bird life.  The exposed vegetation has already been stripped and the short grasses remain covered, out of reach for small songbirds.  The Horned Lark has a method of surviving these hard times, though. 

Dixie Road is only six miles long and lightly dotted with farms.  Ozaukee County was my choice of rural places to look for Horned Larks this day. Horned Larks like the open, short grass habitat of rural America and mowed ditches are a favorite. 

March snows drift across empty fields filling ditches nearly to eye level.  The ditch collects a lot of snow, but the county snowplows add even more.   After a snowplow passes, a two-foot wide band of scraped roadside shoulder exposes enough bare grass to satisfy dozens of Horned Larks. 

As I drove down Dixie Road, the birds scattered in front of me, only to fill-in a porpoise through water.  It was a very surreal visual effect, but I was looking to photograph them, not scare them away! It took me several passes with cat-like creeping, below idle speeds, to invite myself into their flock. Even at that it took me three hours to get my pictures. Luckily, only one car and one truck needed to pass the whole time.

Horned Larks are short tailed social birds that live throughout the United States, including all of Alaska and Canada.  Cold and snow doesn’t bother them, they seen to prefer lower temperatures.  

They are considered an early nester, sometimes starting to lay eggs in February.  They are seedeaters, but they raise their young on insects, so they must time their nesting to the supply of available insects. 

It would be very easy to mistake a Horned Lark for a sparrow.  Similar in size and coloration from the back, look for the Horned Lark’s yellow throat and dark mustache before they fly away. From the back they are difficult to ID.

Good luck though seeing the horns at 50MPH.