Owl #1, Post #500

By far the birds I was most excited to see at Sax-Zim Bog were the owls. Who doesn’t love owls??? However, by mid-day on Saturday I was beginning to feel a little pessimistic. The Friday evening search for Great Gray Owls at dusk had proved fruitless, and today our guide seemed to be doing his best to let us down gently. “Yeah, the Great Grays haven’t been nearly as reliable this year as they usually are. They’ve been a lot harder to find.” “There’s only been one hawk-owl reported in the bog all winter. We’ll look for one but it’s not too likely.” What if I went home at the end of the weekend without having seen a single nocturnal raptor? That would be so embarrassing.

Then this happened.

007 (685x1024)

Do you see the owl? It’s there, I promise. When a couple of photographers told us what they’d found – in a tree right by the edge of the road, with orange flagging tape around its trunk, no less – we couldn’t believe it. (“You wouldn’t believe how long it took us to train that bird to sit in the tree with the flagging tape so we could find it,” quipped the guide.)

Boreal Owl

Yes, it’s a Boreal Owl! These awesome little denizens of the north country are about ten inches tall and usually spend the day well-concealed in the woods, but ours had ventured into the open. Our bus radioed the location to the other buses full of birders cruising the bog and soon the whole stretch of road was lined with owl paparazzi.

019 (1024x685)What’s good news for birders is unfortunately not good news for the bird. The fact that it was alert and out in the open in the middle of the day probably means that this bird was under stress and not finding enough food during its normal hunting times. This is often the case with the owl irruptions we birders love so much – last winter’s amazing influx of Snowy Owls in the U.S. was a sign that there wasn’t enough food for them in their regular range to the north.

Still, I cannot tell a lie, getting such a spectacular look at such an amazing and seldom-seen bird really made my day. And that was only the first owl of the weekend… to be continued!

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Also, on an unrelated note: this marks my 500th post on Rebecca in the Woods. When I began blogging three years ago I was just doing it as a fun project for myself, because I enjoy taking pictures and writing. I had no idea where it would lead me – to becoming a published freelance writer, to doing a graduate project on social media and environmental education, and more. The community I’ve found online has genuinely enriched my life (I feel corny typing that, but it’s true), and I just want to say thank you to every single person who takes the time to read, like, comment, and share. You rock!

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9 thoughts on “Owl #1, Post #500”

  1. Awesome Bird, congrats! My Facebook stream has been filled with photos of this Boreal Owl, as well as others for the past couple of weeks. It’s been torturous not being able to go. Do you mind if I ask who your guide was?

      1. No worries. I have a couple of friends that guide up there. Erik Bruhnke is up there year round. He’s a great guy and I’ve been wanting to find time to get away and have him guide me so that I can witness these owls. I heard Great Grays are coming down in big numbers now. Both would be lifers for me.

  2. Congrats on the 500th post!

    I have very mixed feelings about bus tours and owl paparazzi, we had similar circumstances here last winter when the snowy owls showed up. The DNR and the county sheriff both had to assign officers to the area where the owls were to protect the owls from the paparazzi. In addition, management at the county wastewater treatment facility where the owls took up residence for the winter were considering closing the facility to the public so that the owls could get some peace, which would be a huge loss to responsible birders.

    By offering tours, I’m sure that the management there rakes in some much needed cash needed to maintain the bog, but, it does stress the owls when several bus loads of people are there gawking. On the other hand, by offering tours, management also has more control over the paparazzi, and there is less chance of some idiot chasing the owls to the point of death. That happened to one of the snowy owls that stopped in Kalamazoo Michigan. The poor thing died of starvation.

    The real answer is to preserve and protect these somewhat rare species so that their numbers rebound to the point that they are no longer considered to be rare, and seeing them is a occurrence that happens often enough that bus tours are no longer needed. The stumbling block to that is that it is hard to convince humans to protect something they have never seen.

    1. I agree. On Twitter, I recently linked to a very eloquent post about the problem of owl baiting: http://meadowhawk.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/great-gray-owls-in-ottawa-baiting-and-abetting/. Thankfully I didn’t see anyone baiting birds during the festival, but I still observed some tension between the birders who were really just there to enjoy the wildlife and the photographers with their giant lenses who wanted to creep closer and closer to where the birds were sitting. I also found that having a camera in my own hands (albeit a comparatively tiny one!) changed the experience of birding a lot. Suddenly instead of just being able to enjoy having this amazing bird in front of me, I was worried about whether or not I’d be able to get a good photograph of it. I still love my camera and love taking pictures… but sometimes I have to remind myself to put that aside and just be in the moment.

      Anyway, this weekend was my first time at a festival like this, and while I definitely loved getting to see these awesome animals and I believe the festival organizers and most of the people there really cared about the well-being of the birds, the giant crowds of people lining up to see animals that were already stressed out (they wouldn’t have been out in the day if they weren’t) did give me pause.

      1. Hey Rebecca, I see you found my post about the owl baiting…thanks for tweeting about it.

        The owl paparazzi has become a big problem in eastern Ontario (and southern Quebec from what I’ve heard). I find it difficult to enjoy watching a bird when it’s surrounded by a crowd of people; and I don’t think that people always have the best interests of the owls at heart when they’re pressing in on them. Worse, they don’t seem to care when others try to talk to them about it.

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