Thursday, May 7, 2015

Long-eared and Short-eared Owls

In early April we made an evening stop at a great hotspot for a few hard-to-find species of owls. Normally I’m much more forthcoming with location details but have decided not to be specific with this post, though I bet if you’re very active in the birding community you can guess the location. This particular location is home to Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared, and Short-eared Owls, and has been the subject of some controversy in the Idaho birding world this spring. For a long time, this area has primarily been birded by a handful of very experienced birders that have been careful not to overshare details to avoid drawing too much attention to the owls. Owls as a group tend to draw much more attention than other types of birds, so when a location is divulged publicly there tends to be a mad rush on the area with lots of people hoping to see the birds and bring home the kind of frame-filling photos they see others getting. That’s exactly what happened to these birds after details about these owls were shared in a very public forum early in the year, and the number of visitors to the area skyrocketed.

Birders who have kept an eye on these owls for years were quite disappointed at some of the behavior they saw in the area – including people approaching too closely, trimming branches from around nests for better photos, beating the bushes to try to flush the birds to create better photo opportunities, and stomping around sensitive areas causing the birds undue stress and disruption. I can understand why some have the temptation to try to get a little closer – owls are enigmatic and mysterious, and there’s a certain feeling of accomplishment at having gotten just the shot you were hoping for. It’s difficult after seeing someone else share fantastic frame-filling portraits of such an interesting species to not want to go and get your piece of the action. I think it’s wonderful to have an appreciation for wildlife, and owls have a special draw for me as well, but I think it’s important to realize that not everyone is going to get soul-satisfying views and bring home magazine quality photos. Sometimes the birds are hidden  or barely visible through all the obstructions, and you may not have the same equipment that others are using to get a full-frame shot without getting too close. When that happens, it can be hard to walk away feeling content with your experience, but it’s important to not let the enthusiasm cloud your judgment and cause you to approach too closely, modify the habitat, or try to change the bird’s behavior.

To me, it really seems like its in your own self-interest to be as respectful as possible to sensitive species so you don’t ruin a good thing. Owls that are repeatedly flushed, approached too closely, or have their habitat disturbed may just pick up and leave, or choose a new location for the next breeding season. Reliable locations for owls are very difficult to come by, so it would be an awful shame to see these birds leave the area.

Luckily, when we arrived, we were the only people around, which made it easier to approach the area carefully and quietly to avoid disturbing the birds. Going in, we honestly weren’t sure whether we’d find anything at all, since we didn’t have access to enough specifics to know exactly where to look. We had an idea of the general area though, and as we approached, it quickly became apparent just how sensitive the area is right now. We found at least 8 adult owls out and about, it would be nearly impossible to miss them. As we walked a trail through the area, we constantly had to watch our step and be careful how we proceeded, because it seemed like almost everywhere we turned, we were almost bumping in to another owl nest. We actually laid eyes on 8 birds, but I would guess that there are at least twice as many in the area.

With how many birds there were and how little effort they put into hiding themselves, it’s surprising that some people felt the need to be more aggressive to get the pictures they wanted. We managed to get a fair number of pictures that we were happy with without leaving the trail. All of the pictures below were taken at maximum zoom (50x, 1200mm equivalent) on our Canon SX 50 HS super-zoom camera, and were heavily cropped as well, so the pictures may make it seem like we were close, when we were actually a good distance away from these birds. We made a point to pay attention to behavioral cues from the birds, and tried to move on from each bird before we noticed any kind of change in its behavior. You can see most of the birds in these photos are looking elsewhere, and don’t seem to be too concerned with us. Most of them were hunting actively, and were probably keeping an eye on rodents in the nearby fields.

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Long-eared Owl, southeast Idaho. April 2, 2015.

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Long-eared Owl, southeast Idaho. April 2, 2015.

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Long-eared Owl, southeast Idaho. April 2, 2015.

As the sun continued to set, the owls seemed to get a bit more sensitive to our presence. We hustled out, but on the way we noticed that distances that the owls were comfortable with before were no longer okay. It seemed like they knew it was almost “their” time of day, and were annoyed that they weren’t getting it all to themselves. I’ve included this last shot just as an example of one way you can tell that an owl is ready for you to leave. If it’s staring you down, rather than going about it’s business, it’s time to keep walking.

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Long-eared Owl, southeast Idaho. April 2, 2015.

Also nearby were several Short-eared Owls. It’s amazing how well they are camouflaged for life in the grass. This bird blended right in, and was hard to keep an eye on, even when we knew right where to look.

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Short-eared Owl, southeast Idaho. April 2, 2015.

Short-eared Owls also deserve the same respect that Long-eared Owls do, but they’re much more gregarious, and spend more of the day active in wide open areas, so they can be harder to control information about. They can be quite easy to find if you’re in the right area, as they draw a lot of attention to themselves with their elaborate flight displays, and quite often they might be one of the only birds out on a big open horizon, since their primary habitat is wide open spaces.

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Short-eared Owl, southeast Idaho. April 2, 2015.

We never found the Northern Saw-whet Owls, and it’s probably for the better. We’ve seen them before, so no sense in causing undue stress just for another view. Plus, from what I’ve heard, they may have been the most harassed birds in the area, with people approaching their nest location quite closely, even trimming branches out of the way to get better views. One notable non-owl species we also enjoyed was a Northern Shrike that was singing frequently.

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Northern Shrike, southeast Idaho. April 2, 2015.

Hopefully after this season most people forget about these owls and they can go back to living their lives without too much disturbance. I enjoyed the owls, and I don’t think it’s fair for just a few people to hog the birds all for themselves, but I do think that there’s a right and a wrong way to enjoy an owl, and care has to be taken to avoid disturbing the birds and ruining the opportunity for everybody. A lot of birders won’t share owl information at all, which I think is also a shame, but I fully understand why some people are hesitant to share details when doing so could potentially unleash a parade of people on their find.

On a lighter note, here are a few photos from an outing we had the next day on our trip. After having some lunch with friends in Idaho Falls, we took a drive out to Gray’s Lake while Nora slept in the back of the car. It was a bit early for most of the birds that will fill up this giant marsh later in the year, but we did find pretty high numbers of Sandhill Cranes, plus our first-of-year Franklin’s Gulls.

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Gray’s Lake, Bonneville County. April 3, 2015.

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Franklin’s and Ring-billed Gulls at Gray’s Lake, Bonneville County. April 3, 2015.

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Sandhill Cranes at Gray’s Lake, Bonneville County. April 3, 2015.

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