Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Baby’s first chase–Moscow’s Northern Hawk Owl

In early December when Nora was just a couple of weeks old, IBLE, the Idaho Birding Facebook page, and my eBird needs alert all started lighting up with reports of a Northern Hawk Owl hanging out near Safeway (yes, the grocery store) in Moscow, Idaho. People reported watching it swoop just above their heads between handicapped parking signs and parking lot lamp posts, and apparently it was nearly impervious to human presence. While it was an interesting report, we’ve informally had a rule for ourselves that we don’t stress out about birds outside some reasonable distance from home. Long-distance chases are not terribly compatible with full-time employment, and it also just seemed somewhat arbitrary to chase a bird that was 6 hours north just because it was in Idaho when we wouldn’t even think twice about a bird that was 90 minutes west because that would put it in Oregon. Fantastic rarities like this are often hard to re-find and may only be in the area a short time anyways, so we just wrote it off and didn’t think about too much.

Well as the weeks rolled by, the bird continued to get reported in the exact same area, day after day. It sometimes went a block or two down the road towards McDonalds, but it definitely favored a relatively small patch of spruce trees lining the road along the north side of Safeway. The longer it stayed put, the less I could tell myself that it wasn’t worth chasing because it wouldn’t be there anymore when we arrived anyway. On top of that, Nora turned out to do remarkably well on trips in the car, especially for her very young age. Eventually my impulse control weakened enough that I proposed (half-jokingly of course) that we take our little six week old girl up to find the owl on our next free weekend. Ellen, being the good sport that she is, actually gave it some thought, and was open-minded about the possibility. We waffled back and forth all the way until the morning of our trip, but eventually caved to the chase instinct and hit the road for Nora’s first chase, and our first overnight getaway with our new baby.

We rolled into Moscow just as the sun was setting and went straight to the Safeway parking lot to check for the owl. We found no sign of it at first, but since Nora needed to eat right away and we didn’t have a hotel booked yet, we just stayed put for another half hour and watched for the owl to show up while Ellen fed Nora. Eventually, with just the faintest bit of light left in the sky the little owl swooped up to the top of one of the Spruce trees, and we excitedly fired off a few shots. Conditions were horrible for photography, but we pushed the camera to its limits and at least got our safety shot.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 4, 2014.

I’m sure any of you who have chased a bird you weren’t sure you would find could relate to the feeling of relief when you find the bird you were looking for. Knowing we had it in the bag within our first half hour in town really took the pressure off the rest of the trip, which was good since we’re still feeling out how to keep a good routine when traveling with our little newborn. We got checked in to our hotel, sang our little sweetheart to sleep, and called it an early night.

The next morning, we headed right back to try to get better photos. There were several other photographers there, most of whom had some fairly serious looking gear. Partly because I thought the other photographers were too close to the bird and I didn’t want to be part of the problem, and partly because I’ll admit I’m intimidated by birders with big lenses, I ended up taking almost all my pictures from inside the car. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten out and taken a few shots from a little closer to the bird, since it turned out many of my shots were grainier than I was hoping for, and a significant portion of my shots were ruined by heat waves coming off of the car that distorted the images (but not enough to notice on the camera’s small screen). Still, we did end up with a few photos we’re happy with. The 50X optical zoom we get on our Canon SX50 HS really pulled the bird in (and I might add that it does so at a fraction of the cost of the larger gear the other photographers were using).

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

Many of the photos we took are quite similar since the bird spent a lot of time just sitting and watching for something to pounce on. We did capture one fun sequence though where the owl seemed to be scratching an itch behind its eye.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

We watched the owl make several attempts to catch prey out of the ditch beneath the spruce trees. It would sweep left and right between the spruce trees and a power line, dive bombing small rodents on each pass. We struggled to catch it in flight, as we had not yet discovered the “magical” Sport mode on our new camera (more on that later). In each case the focus was off, the shutter speed was not quick enough, and the burst speed wasn’t sufficient to catch more than one or two shots with the bird in frame before we lost track of it.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

Finally after watching it make several unsuccessful attempts, we caught some video of a successful hunt. You can see in the video below just how close one of the other photographers was. Personally I would avoid getting that close, but I don’t have the same incentives as a professional wildlife photographer.

Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

The pictures aren’t quite as clear as the video, but we did get a couple shots of the owl with its mouth full of rodent guts.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

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Northern Hawk Owl in Moscow, Latah County. January 5, 2014.

Northern Hawk Owls have a very restricted range in the Lower 48, and this seemed like a great opportunity to get one on our list without having to plan a trip to northern Minnesota (nothing against Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog is actually on my bucket list), so we were grateful for the success.

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eBird range map for Northern Hawk Owl.

After spending an hour or so watching the bird, we figured it was time to head out. I had a few other places I was interested in checking out while we were in that neck of the woods, so next we headed down to see a few things in the Lewiston area. Our primary interest was a Long-tailed Duck that had been reported a few different places near the confluence of the Snake and Salmon rivers. We weren’t able to track one down during our short couple of hours, but the scenery was fantastic and there were plenty of other waterfowl to keep it interesting.

Our first stop in Lewiston was West Pond, which is just a short staircase away from the Salmon River and an old vertical lift bridge. I headed up to the river first, while Ellen and Nora started checking out the pond. Right off the bat I found this pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes right by the shoreline.

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Barrow’s Goldeneye on the Salmon River near West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

There were also quite a few Buffleheads cruising up and down the river at break-neck speeds, a handful of Canada Geese, and a flock of Cormorants on the bridge.

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Vertical lift bridge near the Port of Lewiston, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Double-crested Cormorants on the vertical lift bridge near the Port of Lewiston, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

The pond was mostly covered by Mallards and Ring-billed Gulls, present in large numbers.

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Mallards at West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Mallards at West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Mallards at West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

In the bushes around the pond we found lots of White-crowned Sparrows.

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White-crowned Sparrow at West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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White-crowned Sparrow at West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

At this stop, the most noteworthy find for us wasn’t a bird, but was actually a camera function. It was just our luck that the day before Nora was born, I had grabbed our Canon SX40 HS off of my night stand in a hurry, and the strap hooked on a drawer pull, yanking the camera out of my hands and launching it at the ground. The screen was crushed, rendering it impossible to see what kind of pictures we were getting. We had been thinking about upgrading to the Canon SX50 HS for a while, and this was just the motivation we needed. There was no way we were going to go have our brand new baby without a camera to capture the memories, so we stopped what we were doing right then and rushed over to Best Buy to pick up the camera (did you know they price match Amazon.com?). I can’t exaggerate how much better than SX50 is than the SX40. The shutter lag time is decreased, auto focus is much much faster, burst mode is faster, the screen has higher resolution, the zoom is higher (50X vs. 35X), and there are several other improvements as well.

The best improvement of all that we discovered on this trip was Sport mode. We use it almost exclusively for birding photos now. Autofocus is much quicker than under any other settings, the shutter speed is very high, it shoots a 10 shot burst at 13 frames per second, and generally does a far better job of capturing the action than any kind of manual settings I’ve ever been able to come up with. It added a new exciting element to the day to try to capture more pictures of birds in flight, something which I’d largely given up on with our prior camera. Here are just a few of the birds we managed to stop in motion.

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Ring-billed Gull at West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Double-crested Cormorant near West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Mallard at West Pond, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Canada Geese (plus one lonely Cackling Goose) at Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

After spending some time at West Pond we headed over to the Southway Bridge, another location where a Long-tailed Duck had been reported. The bridge was beautiful, but we were unable to find a Long-tailed Duck. 

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Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

We did enjoy a few other waterfowl, including Mallards, Buffleheads, and Double-crested Cormorants.

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Buffleheads near Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Double-crested Cormorant near Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Bufflehead near Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Mallard near Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

In the vegetation along the shore I spent some time with a Song Sparrow and tinkering around with settings on a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

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Song Sparrow near Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet near Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet near Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet near Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

With a long drive a head of us, we hustled back home after our stop at the Southway Bridge. We have lots of places we’d like to spend more time at in that part of the state, so we’ll definitely be planning future trips. We had a blast taking our sweet little girl on her first big trip.

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Nora and Mom near the Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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Nora and Dad near the Southway Bridge, Nez Perce County. January 5, 2014.

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