Going To See Short-eared Owls

I saw five of the reported seven short-eared owls tonight. There's one in the photo at left. Can't see it? It's just down the road a bit. Well, I was a little far away, there's a much better shot of the owl at Ron Green's site.

Oh, there’s nothing like a good stake out bird! Okay, for the readers of this blog that are new to birding, a stake out bird is an unusual or rare bird that has been reported on a hotline or listserv that everyone tries to see. It’s what I call an “X marks the spot bird”. Someone will give detailed directions, you show up and bam, there it is. It can be at a feeder, in a particular tree out in the middle of nowhere, in a neighborhood, anywhere. Tonight, there were at least nine or ten of us out looking for the owls. I would guess more people will show up Saturday evening.

Some feel that stake out birds shouldn’t be countable because you usually don’t have to do much work, just show up. I think this is one of the instances where bird listers got a bad name. They would show up, look at the bird and then leave, often times irritating those who like to stand and watch the bird for as long as possible. It's just personal preference. Personally, I love a good stake out bird. It’s an opportunity to meet people from listservs who are normally just a user name or chance to catch up with a birder you haven’t seen for awhile. I look at it as an informal gathering after work.

That’s not to say that stake out birds don’t come with their share of problems. Because so many people know about the bird, when you first show up there can be a crowd of people, each with their own agenda on seeing the bird. This can be good thing, the more eyes, the easier it is to find the bird. But you have to be aware of where everyone else is and what they are trying to do (are they trying to record it?).

Believe it or not, there is a sort of etiquette for stake out birds and when that etiquette isn't followed, tempers can rise. For example, how close do you get to a bird? If there’s a crowd I keep my distance. You never know who is going to join the group and though you have stood and watched the bird for a half hour, someone may come and want to see it with in the next two minutes. It's generally not a good time to experiment to see how close you can get to the bird for a great photo. You really don't want to be the one who flushes the bird unnecessarily. You could spoil it for whoever arrives later or someone who just got the bird lined up in their spotting scope or camera lens.

Now, there’s new etiquette to deal with. It used to be that you would get a few photographers that would show up. As a birder, you have to be careful to not ruin their shot. Tonight there was a videographer and someone with a microphone trying to record the calls (pictured, right). This gets trickier. A lot of your fancier mics can pick up car sounds and conversation, much to the irritation of the person trying to record the birds. Many people watching birds will sit in their cars, using it as a blind or to stay warm, keeping the engine running so they can follow the birds. Plus, there's a lot of chitchat at stake out birds, all of this can interfere with sound recordings. Another area to try and figure out in this great thing we do called birding.

You can tell Minnesotans are desperate for spring. We were excitedly pointing out grackles to each other while watching the short-ears and when I came home and checked the listserv, someone else was happy to announce that they saw a grackle in their yard. We're happy about grackles for cryin' out loud. I did hear my first killdeer of the season but was still reminded of winter when a rough-legged hawk flew out above the field where the short-eared owls were hunting.