Obligatory Snowy Owl Post

Hey! Have you checked out Project Snowstorm or contributed to it? You should donate because your money allows researchers to study an owl irruption in a way we've never been able to before--in real time rather than spending the next two years trying to figure out what happened, why it happened and if the owls survived. I gave $25, can you do the same? How about $10 or more? But if you can't donate, check out what they are learning...like maybe these owls aren't all starving to death and that some are even hunting ducks over open water at night! Amazeballs!

snowy owl male (1 of 1)

If you live in the eastern half of North America...it's kind of your duty to post about snowy owls this winter. So many people are finding them and so many non and casual birders are seeing them, it's reminding me of the great gray owl irruption of 2004/2005...which means my blog will be 10 years old in September of this year. Wow. How did ten years happen that fast? So many adventures and changes. And I wonder who is the next "Birdchick" that is out there with a fire in her belly with a ton of bird stuff to share. She (or he for that matter) doesn't have to be "Birdchick" but I do wonder who is like I was 10 years ago seeing how people share birding information and thinking, "I could do this in a completely different way (and maybe even a better way)," and will soon get their message out there for the delight or chagrin of the world? For every movement there is an anti movement or as we like to say at Chez Stiteler, "For every Mame is an Auntie Mame." And I'm totally cool with being the Mame in this situation and gladly await the Auntie Mame.

But back to snowy owls! They are all over the frickin' place. They are within a 30 minute drive of my apartment to the northwest and to the southeast. All one really needs to do is either use eBird or the BirdsEye app on their phone to see where people are seeing them.

snowy owl on pole (1 of 1)

Based on eBird and Facebook (and the many photos people are posting on that social media site) there is currently a fairly reliable snowy owl on 180th street and Hogan in Dakota County, Minnesota. I headed down after doing some work on Winter Trails Day to test out a new digiscoping adapter on my iPhone 5s (can't talk about the particulars yet). It was far easier finding the owls than I thought, I just drove around to the known spots and pulled over where ever I saw cars on the sides of the farm roads. The above bird has been perching here regularly no matter how close people get to it.  I alas, cannot get close to a snowy because my scope and camera set up have too much zoom! From that particular setting here is what I got with the Nikon V1 and my Swarovski scope:

snowy owl v1 (1 of 1)

I could barely get the whole bird in the frame! With the Nikon V1, you get great photos but it really zooms in. I've noticed before that it's field of view is quite narrow.  When a bird is close like this, I find my iPhone 5s works much better for digiscoping.  Here's the same bird in the same spot but with my iPhone:

snowy owl iphone male (1 of 1)

Better field of view.

Here's another comparison with a different snowy owl that was further out in a corn field:

snowy owl in field iPhone (1 of 1)

This was taken through my scope with the iPhone 5s with a bird that was about 100 yards out from the road. I do like getting habitat shots of these snowy owls. It's fun to try and figure out where they are hiding. I'm to the point now that I look for a dirty wedge of snow and that helps me find the females.

snowy owl (1 of 1)

Same bird taken at the same distance with the Nikon v1 through my spotting scope.

Oh and if you are interested in attempting to sex the snowy owls in your area, Cornell has a good page explaining it. Based on what they show, the bird on the post with the thinner barring and larger white chin patch is a male and the above bird with the thick barring is female.

Here is a short video I made showing the difference between my iPhone and my Nikon V1 of digiscoping the male snowy owl.  You can see that with either set up, you really don't need to be close to the owl and all up in its business.


Owls: Birding's Troublesome Ambassador

  Here's a little video I made about watching owls.  This is a compilation of some of the owls I've digiscoped over the years.



It's one of those sorts of winters again: a northern owl species is heading into parts of the US in big numbers.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 11.32.44 AM

This time it's snowy owls mostly along the east coast. Look at the above map from eBird. There have been some crazy reports, including 138 individual snowy owls found on Newfoundland and note the dot in the middle of the Atlantic there? That's because at least 2 snowy owls have made it to Bermuda...that's bananas!!

snowy owl habitat

If you are not on social media you have missed anyone you know on the east coast reporting a siting or photo. Or you may have missed the outrage of birders all over the place angry about people getting to close to the owls. Or you have missed the many lamentations of birders to everyone to back off from owls, give them their space and if you ever find an owl in the wild, just don't post it. Above is a picture of a snowy owl taken at a Wisconsin airport last winter. That lump on the left hand side of the roof is the owl.

snowy owl

Here it is through the scope (someone had banded and placed a patagial tag on this). Owls are a tricky issue in birding. They're cool, we all want to see one, even non birders--they make a great intro into the fun and wonderful (tho sometimes vexing) world of birding. I love the number of times I've taken non birding friends to an airport and showed them a quick snowy--it's a great way to show people that cool birds can be anywhere.  It's a charismatic looking bird, it has so much potential in a teachable moment. But owls need their space and we don't often give it to them. I almost wonder if owls have some sort of hypnotic power so that even when someone has the best photo they can get, they have to know just how close they can get to this strange and mysterious creature and that compels them to get closer.

I think most of the time it's just people who are new to birding, have access to birding locations and equipment like never before and simply do not know or realize that they are getting too close or are away of birding ethics.

What do you do with the owl conundrum when you see someone getting too close? Do you confront them? Do you secretly video them for public shaming on YouTube?

I think it's best to confront them at the time but do it in a way that assumes they know absolutely nothing about birds and in a calm way.


Perhaps, start with, "Isn't this owl amazing, you may not realize it, but getting this close to it is a problem for the bird and for others who want to see it."

I know some people are immediately not going to respond well.  No one likes to be told by stranger that they are doing something wrong. But If you can find a way to explain how they are one of hundreds of people a day seeing that owl, interfering with its ability to hunt and ability to survive, they might take that to heart.

Trying the approach of, "If we back off a little bit, we might get to see some really cool natural behaviors and interactions with other animals.  We might get to see it hunt or we might get to see and film something like this:


I don't think it's going to be solved any time soon, but we need to get info out to people that they don't have to get that close to owls to enjoy them.



Nemesis Birds

  UPDATE: The Duluth News Tribune joined us for part of the day and you can see our birding posse and learn more about Minnesota's boreal owl irruption here.

snowed port a potty

Nothing says winter in Minnesota like snow drifting into a port-a-potty.

I can't really do my Big Half Year fundraiser for the Friends of Sax Zim Bog without at least one trip to the bog. I knew I would get up there at some point this winter and I had made some plans with friends and then last week, things went a little nuts. A tiny owl called a boreal owl showed up in spades. One report from Chris Wood counted seven! Granted that this not on the scale with the great gray owl irruption of 2004/2005 but it's significant none the less...especially since this is somewhat of a nemesis bird for me (a bird I always seem to miss). I finally got to the point of not even chasing one since every effort to do so ended up with the classic phrase, "Oh it was just hear yesterday (or 15 minutes ago)..."

I figured one day I'd get one.  Well, as plans solidified for my friends and I to head to Duluth and pay for the daily guiding services of Erik Bruhnke (a GREAT guide and worth every penny of his guiding fee, this is the second time we've used him). The reports of boreal owls were just too much and everyone in our group needed one for their list. The owls are mostly being seen between Duluth and Two Harbors, MN (and some right in Two Harbors). We asked Erik what our chances would be to go boreal. He said doable, but it would cut into our time for the bog.  I thought to myself, "Do I want to get as many birds as possible for my Big Half Year or do I want to risk that number and get a lifer (and hopefully a photo of it) and have fewer birds for the day. We went for the boreal.

Erik Bruhnke


Erik told us that we would have to drive along Scenic Highway 61 which is usually a pretty, scenic highway right along Lake Superior...thanks to some snow and lack of plows, it was a bit slow going, which is great if you have eyes desperate for spotting an owl that's about 10 inches long tucked in the thick brush the same color it is. Also, note Erik in the above photo.  It was 18 degrees and there he is, sweet as you please standing outside with out a coat and his sleeves rolled up. Northern Minnesota show off.

North Shore


We creeped along slowly on the highway. As the minutes passed, our vehicle became more quiet--would we miss the owl? Were we wasting valuable bog time by going for a bird we wouldn't see? Was I jinxing everyone in the group by making an attempt for my nemesis bird? You know, the typical things that go through your mind when you decided to chase a bird.

Boreal Owl

Then blammo! We got one! The bird was actively hunting along the highway, not paying any attention to us at all while it flitted from perch to perch. And those of us with cameras were able to get photos.



I don't often get a chance to celebrate a life bird--especially in Minnesota, but when I do, I do it with 16 year old scotch!

boreal owl 1


What a treat to see this bird, we got to watch it fly, bob it's head trying to listen for something small an furry tunneling beneath the fluffy snow, posing in fabulous light, I felt 15 years of searching ease right off my shoulders.  Whatever would happen the rest of the day was just gravy.

We did pursue a few more birds in and around the Duluth area before heading over to the bog.  Of note was a snowy owl which was the weirdest snowy owl I've ever seen.

Hitler the Snowy Owl

Is it me or does this snowy owl bear a resemblance to Hitler? This bird has been banded as well as marked with spray paint. As I understand it, banders have used spray paint to make sure they don't keep retrapping the same owl, because of the feathers on the toes and the bird's tendency to keep its feet hidden, it's hard to tell if a bird is banded. The spray paint can act as a sort of marker. But here is what I do not understand--note the number "8" on the wing? That's a patagial tag, a marker that allows you to know that the bird is already banded but you can actually id individual birds easily with a pair of binoculars. They are used on California condors, pelicans, old world vultures and turkey vultures.  It seems to me that the patagial tag and the spray paint is a bit of overkill as far as trying to make sure you're not pestering the same owl.

The other thing that bothers me about this is that snowy owls use camouflage to hide form predators as well as prey.  Does this muck it up? I normally side with banders on things, but fiddling around with a bird's camouflage makes me uneasy. Perhaps I would feel better if I could find some published information on this, but I can't seem to.  I found one article from the 1960s about captive snowy owls that were spray painted to id some molt  and then whole bunch of links about Martha Stewart spray painted owl stencils.

I'm currently at 56 birds for my Big Half Year, though that will change a bit in a few days. Thanks again to everyone who has pledged money to the effort to build a visitor center in the bog!


Great Horned Owl Barking

I had a meeting at The Raptor Center yesterday.  At the end, we got a brief tour, which despite having given hundreds in the past, I was excited to do because it's been about 3 years since I volunteered there and things change quickly.  Many of the birds I worked with are still there...as in the turkey vulture who like me is 37  years old. But because it's owl breeding season, the great horned owls were all very hooty in the courtyard.  One of the imprinted owls (a bird raised by people and imprinted on them) gives a strange sound for an adult.  It barks.  This is a sound usually given by immature birds and is associated with food begging.  In the wild they would grow out of that.  But imprints do it a lot.  I think this is a sound people hear quite a bit in the wild at night and since it is such an un owl like sound, it's hard to id.

Here's a video (with a really dramatic title sequence courtesy of Non Birding Bill):


Baby Owls Branching Out

I'm in the midst of my busies month.  If I'm not at the National Park Service engaged in ranger work, I'm on the road at a bird festival, birding the crap out of whatever state I'm in.  It's a horrific schedule but it's loads of fun.  And at the end of the month of May, I get a weekend off to celebrate my wedding anniversary with Non Birding Bill (we'll be on year lucky 13--boy, why did I think it would be a good idea to get married in May?). A friend of mine who is new to birding asked if I'd like to go out next week.  My first answer was that I was too busy.  But then I saw on Tuesday that it was supposed to be 80 degrees and I just couldn't say no.  So we did some birding near my apartment.  It's warbler season and they are dripping off the trees.  The few days I was home, I had a golden-winged warbler outside my bedroom window ever morning!

I showed him the owl nest and boy the two young owls were panting like crazy.  Birds don't sweat like humans and pant like dogs when their hot.  The young owls still have some of their thick down that protects them in snow storms when they hatch earlier.  Doesn't it look like it's saying, "Oh man, I'm so hot, ugh."

I didn't see either adult and figured that since the young were so large, they were tucked in a nearby conifer for shade from the warm sun.  As I looked at the nest from this angle, I realized how trashed it is.  Check out these photos from an earlier entry when the female was still incubating.  Note how the nest material was all the way to to the stick.  In the above photo, it's well below that now.  I thought to myself that these owls have to be in the brancher phase.  That's when they are still downy but their feet are very strong and they begin to venture out of the nest.  The young birds can even be blown out of the tree, yet their feet are strong enough to enable them to climb back up.

It looks like they have some feather development on their wings and back.  I got confirmation on this a few days later from another nearby resident who has been watching the nest and he confirmed that babies had crawled out and were on branches 10 feet from the nest.  Our little guys grow up so fast.

Cooper's Hawk Attacks Owl Nest

Well, Friday morning turned out to be far more exciting than I anticipated!  I had to work at the park service in the afternoon and evening and I was meeting a friend for a late breakfast.  I thought that since it was warm, I'd peek at the great horned owl nest in my neighborhood and see if the owlets were more visible...

One owlet was easily visible with the naked eye on approach.  Great horned owls do not build their own nests, they take over old squirrel, hawk or heron nests.  They don't even make any renovations before they use it, they just squat.  As the chicks grow, the nests soon shrink.  Between the dwindling nest and the larger chicks, the female no longer fits very well and perches near the chicks.

It appears that the nest contains two owlets!  When I arrived to the general nesting area, I could hear the crows heartily mobbing.  I saw the male fly over with a flock of about 20 crows in tow.  The chicks showed a bit of interest in the commotion but mostly laid low.

The female was very interested in the crow activity as she watched the crows surround the other owl.  What was interesting was that I thought the crows were chasing one owl, I later ran into a fellow birder who was close the crows and he said the crows were after two great horned owls and a third flew in.  I wonder now that as I was watching her keen interest in the crow activity, if she was responding to an intruding great horned owl into her territory rather than the corvids gathering around her mate?

She soon left the nest to try to get a better look at the mobbing crows but still would turn around to keep an eye on her chicks.  It was so strange to me to see a secretive owl perched out in the open in the middle of the morning.  Not long after I took this photo, she bolted off into the middle of the flock of crows.  The owls all went in separate directions and the crows split their murder into 2 smaller groups, diving and cawing at the owls.

With the female away, the young owlets closed their eyes and assumed an upright position.  I wondered if this was all part of a camoflauge instinct?  With the adults going after the crows, it stirred up the surrounding birds.  Robins began giving their alarm calls and then an adult Cooper's hawk flew in.  The hawk missed its intended prey...then suddenly noticed one of the owls and started diving at it and screaming its call.  If you're not familiar with a Cooper's hawk mobbing an owl, let me remind you of the video of the Cooper's hawk mobbing a plastic owl (they never work to scare birds away).

The Cooper's hawk then made a wider pass and went straight for the owl nest, hell bent on mobbing the chicks.  First it bounced off the nest and then started to make a second dive, by that time, the female great horned owl was back on the nest and ready to kick some serious accipiter ass if it tried it again.  I have never seen a great horned move so fast in my entire life.  I've always referred to them as the Sunday drivers of the raptor world...I got schooled--they can move very fast when they need to.  The above photo is on the Cooper's hawk's second attempt at a dive on the nest.  The blur above the nest is the female owl defending her chicks.

The angry Cooper's hawk perched nearby and shrieked out angry, "kek kek kek kek kek keks" at the great horned owl.  I suspect this bird has a nest nearby.

The great horned owl stood at her nest above her chicks and hooted back her retorts after every kek the Cooper's hawk gave her. The owl even barked a few times in warning at the hawk.  It was the weirdest argument I'd ever heard.  As the two continued, a few crows gathered nearby to continue their remarks on the two predators they detested.  Then, out of nowhere, a broad-winged hawk screamed nearby.  Three raptors all at once! An owl, a buteo and an accipiter.

The chicks nestled against the female as if to say, "Yeah, my mom is awesome."

I wondered, how long was this battle going to last?  The suspense was killing me...then I got my answer.  I heard a helicopter coming fast and approaching low.

This was not digiscoped, this helicopter was THAT low.  It was Metropolitan Mosquito Control dropping their corn pellets full of Bti and Methoprene to kill of mosquito larvae.  The helicopter skirted the tops of the trees, the owl, crows and hawk scattered.  The adult female owl apparently thought, "Cooper's hawk, yeah, I can kill that," but when the helicopter appeared her attitude shifted to, "yikes, too big for me kids, you're on your own, see ya!"

After the raptors scattered, pellets rained down and bounced off my body.  I could hear nearby woodpeckers give low warning noises to each other.  Robins were on high alert.

A couple of nearby mallards seemed to dig the pellets and tried to eat them as soon as they hit the water--they were the only birds who seemed to be unaffected by the strange aerial machine.  The city assures me that the pellets are harmless both to me and the wildlife that might consume it.  I was tempted to start running around like Cary Grant in a Hitchcock movie, but it's not so much fun with a spotting scope in tow.

The helicopter made a few more passes and a few moments later, one of the owls flew back with a few pesky crows hot on its tail.

She perched right above my head and the crows still followed.  She looked over to see her chicks were still in the nest and I think scan for the Cooper's hawk.  Most of the crows lost interest, but a few hung around to caw out their angst.  I couldn't stay, I had to get to my breakfast meeting, but things seemed to be settling down and I'm sure she went back to the tree.  After a Cooper's hawk and a helicopter, crows were merely an annoyance.

One of the chicks was scratching itself, but it almost looks like it's trying to give a high five.  Note the large gray feathers in the nest.  Looks like the owls have been eating some pigeon.  And based on an owl pellet that Non Birding Bill near the nest, some other surprising species...but that's for future blog entry...

Owl Chick, Finally!

As I was working my way around my neighborhood the other day on my bike, I made one final stop before heading home to check on the great horned owl net.  I hoped that since it was so warm that the female would be up and out of the nest and maybe I'd get a glimpse of a chick.  She did seem to be up a little higher but I couldn't see any sign of the young.  I tried scanning the trees where I usually see the male perched as a sentry over the territory, but couldn't find him.  I decided to get an establishing shot of the nest.

That's when I noticed him--he was perched right out in the open above the nest!  Do you see where the nest is in relation to the male?  The nest is in the lower right hand corner in the crotch of the tree.  You can see her little tufts stick up out of the nest.

It was interesting to me that even though he was out in the open and I had my scope on him, a few people walked past me and didn't seem to notice.  Yo, people, huge owl up here.  As I took this photo, a Cooper's hawk flew in, circled the tree to buzz the owls and then continued on its way.  It didn't vocalize but it was as if the fly by was letting the owls know, "Yeah, I see you, you're not fooling me."

The male kept a hairy ball in the direction of the Cooper's hawk.  He never looked at me again after that, but watched the fast little hawk. A few other birds came in to mob them as well.

This flicker was my favorite.  She slowly worked the branches for food and then suddenly noticed the owl (that photo is right when she noticed the male) and started giving a warning call.  She even dove at the male a few times.  I wondered if she hadn't seen the nest because all the mobbing in the world by a flicker is not going to get that owl to move.  And let's face it flickers can't even drive out a starling.

The female wasn't too worried.  She seemed to be snoozing in the sun, paying no attention to me or the flicker.

I started to leave and I turned to take one last look and then I saw the female adjust herself.  I aimed the scope and up popped a baby owly head!  So cute and fluffy!  It shook its head a few times and then disappeared under the female again.  Nice to know that there's at least one chick in the nest.

Check out the baby, see the little white dot on the tip of its bill?  That's an egg tooth.  Something birds have in the egg that helps them chip out of the shell.  It usually sheds not long after hatching.  I checked over at Cornell's Birds of North America Online and looked up owl tooth development on great horned owls: "Young show remnants of yolk sac and retain egg tooth for 4–6 days (Turner and McClanahan 1981) or traces of both egg tooth and yolk sac for up to 2 weeks (Hoffmeister and Setzer 1947). Eyes remain closed until 9-11 days of age"

Young owls don't always hatch at the same time, there can be a day or two difference.  I wonder if this is the youngest owlet in the nest?  It's a safe bet that these birds are less than 9 days old or hatched early last week sometime.  Exciting!

Oh and I found this empty wrapper not too far from the nest tree.  I wonder what kind of shenanigans the owls witness at night?




Hidden Owl

Here's the male owl that's nesting near my apartment.  Look at how well those feathers blend with that bark. I've said it before and I'll say it again, "How many owls do I walk under in a year and never notice?  30?"


Eastern Screech-Owl At MN History Center

While working at the park service today, I noticed a Tweet from my friend Sara asking if I knew that the Minnesota History Center had an owl stuck inside.  She referenced a photo at @MNHS has posted on their Twitter Feed:

An eastern screech-owl (gray phase).  The History Center is in downtown St. Paul, only a few blocks away from where my visitor center is located for the National Park Service.  The History Center also tweeted that the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center was coming to capture the owl.

By the time I arrived, the small owl had already been captured by the TRC experts.  They took it back to the clinic to give it an exam, but I expect the bird will be released quite soon.  As I entered the building, I could hear people on the roof doing repairs.  A few quick questions at the box office confirmed my suspicion: the owl mostly likely entered the fourth floor via the roof repair area sometime in the night.

As I left, I noticed a stand of pines and thought, "Wow, that would be a nice place for an urban screech owl to roost.  I wonder if I can find any owl sign?

Yep, I found a spot with poop consistent with with small owl fecal material.  I can't say for certain that this is THE screech-owl that was captured, but most likely it is.

Glad the story had a quick ending and TRC was able to get the owl out of the gigantic History Center.  Here's a video from the St. Paul Pioneer Press about the wayward owl: