The Magic Of Finding Owls

We're having our third straight weird winter in Minnesota. A third winter of unpredictable weather patters. February used to be my guaranteed snow shoe hike month and for the past three winters I've had to just call them hikes or cancel them because thaw cycles of turned the trails to ice. This past week like the rest of the country we experienced insane highs in the 50s - 60.

I'm not going to panic about it, but I am going to take advantage of a weird spring like day to go bike riding, it's one of the things I enjoy almost as much as birding. And it's a perfect combo when I can combine them both. I often listen to movie soundtracks while biking to make my ride more fun. 

The other day I was biking and listening to The Force Awakens, specifically the Jedi Steps part at the end of the movie. As I biked along, something suddenly got my attention. "Wow, that's a lot of poop."

Look at all those pellets!

Look at all those pellets!

Because it was a thick clump of cedars I immediately assumed it was a saw-whet owl roost. I noticed about four spots where the bird had spent lots of time and dropped lots of pellets. I gingerly walked around to try and look up in hopes of not flushing the bird (with that ruddy mysterious music playing through my headphones). The first two spots had no owl above, then I got to the spot in the above photo. I looked up and less than two feet from my head was an old robin's nest with a gray phase eastern screech-owl perched on it (just as the music swelled when it revealed Luke Skywalker in the movie). I immediately said, "Holy shit," crouched low to put as much space between us and backed away, hoping against hope that I wouldn't accidentally flush it. I was not expecting that bird to be that low...or in a robin's nest. It stayed in its spot and I wondered if felt a little bad ass, "Well, I showed that human!"

The next day I took Non Birding Bill with me to see the bird and try to digiscope it. The branch it chose is perfect for hiding. It's on the lowest and thickest branch and the branch curves, creating a tent over the owl. I flattened my tripod as low as it would go, crawling on the ground to get a view as far away from the owl as I could. I found one window through the needles to get a glimpse and snapped a few photos for my own documentation.

This owl maybe low, but it has figured out a great hiding spot. 

This owl maybe low, but it has figured out a great hiding spot. 

I've never found a screech-owl roosting in cedars in winter. I've mostly seen them in natural cavities or nest boxes. And as always when I find an owl, I wonder how many I've passed because I assumed they wouldn't hide in a particular spot. 

I like this photo because the owl turned away from me. It no longer saw me as threat enough to stare down. All in all we were there three minutes getting pictures and grabbing a few more pellets. 

I like this photo because the owl turned away from me. It no longer saw me as threat enough to stare down. All in all we were there three minutes getting pictures and grabbing a few more pellets. 

And for now this owl will be left alone. If it stays warm I'll bike past but I won't stop except to collect a pellet or two. I'm going to have try and hit that area in March at dusk to see if I can hear any screech-owl trilling. 

Birdchick Podcast #219 Owl Drama and Birding Apps

The owl drama is intense this month on social media. You can follow the hashtag #owlmasterbaiters on Facebook to following along. 

Funny caracara story and terrible caracara movie

Lawsuit in New York to protect threatened piping plovers from non native feral cats

Oh hey, it's a great blue heron eating an alligator

New apps out there including Merlin which will ID your bird photos and Song Sleuth which cam help ID some bird songs. 

How To Look Like A Bad Ass Birder

Have you ever been out birding with your digiscoping kit or traditional camera equipment and wondered if there was an easier and more comfortable way to carry your camera and binoculars at the same time? Did you ever hope you'd look like a total bad ass while doing it? Well, I have three words for you: Tactical Birding Harness. 

Actually the real name is the CCS Binocular & Camera Harness and as soon as you put it on, you feel ready for what my friend Ben Douglas would call "beast mode birding."

The CCS Binocular and Camera Harness from Cotton Carrier. 

The CCS Binocular and Camera Harness from Cotton Carrier

Initially, I was skeptical about this harness on two fronts. First, I'm female and I'm a well endowed. Though I enjoy using binoculars harnesses for comfort, it can be a challenge to get those to work around a curvy chest. Many of these products are built for guys and well, the products get weird when applied to a woman's body. 

Image of a guy using the Binocular and Camera Harness from the Cotton Carrier website. 

Image of a guy using the Binocular and Camera Harness from the Cotton Carrier website. 

The second concern is that I had is that I have a low center of gravity and I wondered if having this stuff hanging on me was really going to be anymore comfortable than my usual set up of a traditional binocular harness with my camera slung over my shoulder while carrying my scope on a tripod. 

Me wearing the binocular and camera harness. 

Me wearing the binocular and camera harness. 

To my surprise, the tactical harness can be quite comfortable. As soon as I put it on, I felt a bit like Bruce Wayne suiting up for a night with the Joker. Being short, I had to do a lot of cinching of the shoulder straps, but once I got the harness snug against me, it wasn't bad at all. The fitting of this harness is really key (and gents, you may want to skip to the next paragraph as I'm going to get into some serious boob talk here). Ladies, if you leave it slightly loose, the harness shifts a bit as you move and then you're left with that look many of us dread: one of your breasts is randomly hanging out on the side. Don't make it so tight it hurts to breath, but have someone help you tighten it on the shoulders and the waist to keep in in place. 

Once fitted well, it doesn't move as much as a traditional binocular harness. Many women tell me that they find the traditional binocular harnesses uncomfortable. I think one reason is that people don't pay attention to where the leather patch is in the back. Sometimes it has a tendency to ride up just below your neck, when really it should be squarely between your shoulder blades and depending on how active you are in the field, you periodically have to pull it down. This harness stays in place for the post part when snug. 

You'll note there are straps with clips to help secure your camera and binoculars to the vest should they become dislodged from the vest, preventing them from dropping to the ground. I like how the binoculars are flat against the chest and don't flop around. I'm using 8x32 ELs which are compact and lightweight, it might be a different story with larger barrel binos.

You'll note there are straps with clips to help secure your camera and binoculars to the vest should they become dislodged from the vest, preventing them from dropping to the ground. I like how the binoculars are flat against the chest and don't flop around. I'm using 8x32 ELs which are compact and lightweight, it might be a different story with larger barrel binos.

The  harness comes with adapters to attach to the bottom of your camera and around the barrel of your binoculars. The washer has arrows that when aligned correctly will secure your optics to your harness. 

The  harness comes with adapters to attach to the bottom of your camera and around the barrel of your binoculars. The washer has arrows that when aligned correctly will secure your optics to your harness. 

The harness has an adapter and velcro strap to attach to the barrel of your binoculars and a tripod adaptor for your camera. These have large washers that will lock your optics in place on the front of the harness, and off to the side (you can adjust whether you have the second piece on your right or left to favor which side you use most). I did notice that after awhile the velcro strap on my Swarovski ELs would come loose and slide a little bit and I'd have to retighten it to keep it aligned with the harness.

I also  had to get used to my binoculars and camera in a new area. If you've had your digiscopign set up for awhile, using them has become second nature. This is a bit of a different configuration and it takes some getting used to the different way you have to holster holster and reholster your bins, especially if you're excitedly looking at a bird.   Here's a demo of the binoculars being holstered:

A small pocket in the belt holds a cover to put over camera to keep them dry if it's raining while you're out in the field. There's even a holder just inside the front of the harness in case you have an umbrella with a thin rod that you want to put over yourself to stay dry. Just wearing the whole set up around for an hour was not bad and the best part was that my binoculars and camera felt secure and not like they were bouncing all over the place.  This is something I might use while at a birding festival or birding remote areas. I wish I had this back when I was doing bird surveys. I'm not sure if I would wear this set up in an urban park, it might be a bit much and cause neighbors to question you. But if you are going to wear it in an urban park, go big or go home:

The harness accessorizes well with a Batman Cowl. 

The harness accessorizes well with a Batman Cowl. 

Birdchick Podcast #216 Panama, Subarus and Species

Thank you to everyone who became new members of the American Birding Association last year and sited us as a reason. We won the trip to Canopy Tower in Panama! I was there back in 2012 and I've always wanted to go back!

Some Subarus now include an app that directs you to birds reported to eBird. 

The debate goes on over how many species there are in the world

Again if you are looking for other birding podcasts, there are some new ones. Check out the American Birding Podcast and Out There With the Birds

Birdchick Podcast #215 2017 Goals and Podcasts

Are you in the mood to travel? Want to go to Cuba? Come with me!

There are some new podcasts in town that you should check out! One is from the American Birding Association and the other is from Bird Watcher's Digest

Here's a sum up of the people who did a 2016 North America Big Year. And then there's Arjan and his word-wide Big Year. But then there's the worldwide big year from Arjan...