Owling with Birders

This past Saturday the Master Naturalists were invited to go owling with the local bird watching group, the New River Valley Bird Club, and considering my 2016 mission to see an owl in the wild, I jumped at the chance.

The group met at 4:30 (less than an hour before sunset) at the Deerfield Trail, intending to spot birds as we walked toward known owl habitat that the leaders had scoped out on previous evenings.

I was, of course, late, and so I walked the first half mile of the trail quickly and alone, trying to catch up with the birders that I hoped were ahead, but could not hear.  I did catch up, said a quiet hello to a fellow NRV Master Naturalist, and slipped in at the back of the group.

Now that I’ve been out birding with honest-to-goodness real bird watchers, I can report on the differences between birders and naturalists:

  1. Birders are quiet.  Really, really quiet.  They know that birds flee and fly from noisy humans, so not one voice exceeded a whisper for the entire two hour walk.  Master naturalists can be quite quiet and contemplative when alone, but if you get us together without duct-taping our mouths, we’re likely to sound like a flock of laughing gulls.
  2. Birders walk farther and faster than naturalists in between stops to examine nature.  They are looking for one thing:  birds.  They may look up, down, and all around, but only a bird sighting brings them to a stop.  Naturalists, on the other hand, are more like excited toddlers when it comes to nature – ooh, look at the tree, ooh look at the fungus on the tree, ooh look at the mushroom on the ground, ooh did you hear that woodpecker?  You’re lucky if you can get us (okay, me) to go 50 feet without a stop to see something awesome/intriguing/puzzling.
  3. Birders know how to stack the deck.  Our leader on this walk also carried a few handfuls of birdseed in his pack.  Whenever the group stopped to lift their binoculars or listen intently, he cast some seed on the trail.  In this way, he made sure that at our next stop, we could also look back at what feathered friends might be feasting at his impromptu feeding station.  Because of this, I saw my first ever Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), a large, brown, and streaky sparrow that does an adorable sort of hopping moonwalk to scratch up seeds and other little edibles on the forest floor.
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A fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with its beak open. I was so excited to have new binoculars (most excellent Christmas gift) to watch the fox sparrows we saw do their little back-hop scratch!

And the similarities between birders and naturalists?

Birders strike out, too.

Though we were walking in confirmed great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) territory and tempting the resident with recorded great horned owl calls (thanks to the Merlin Bird ID app) that it had responded to only the night before, we saw not one feather and heard not one hoot.

Though we were silent and patient, the owl just didn’t show.  It happens.

After waiting long enough in the January evening cold (temperatures in the teens, snowing up on Brush Mountain), we headed back toward the trail head.  Our second owl quarry, an Eastern screech-owl (Otus asio), occupies territory where the trail crosses Tom’s Creek.

And so we walked quietly in the gathering dusk, stopped silently, and listened intently as the whinnying calls of another screech owl on another night emanated from the leader’s smart phone.  Once, twice, three times.  Nothing.  And then, faintly, we heard an echoing whinny from farther down the creek.  It was so soft, no one dared to name it.  A fifth play from the smart phone brought another delicate whinny from downstream, though, and then we all knew.  Bright smiles lit up the darkening trail.  A real screech owl, and we had been there!  We didn’t see it, but we didn’t need to; at least we had heard it!

Birders get just as excited as naturalists, they’re just quiet about it.

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

It’s January now, and I feel the opposing needs of my body’s evolutionary and cultural pulls:

  1.   Evolution pulls me to pack on insulating fat and sleep as much as possible to survive this cold, dark season, but
  2. Culture pulls me to burn off those holiday calories so that I can live a healthier and longer life.

Culture winds because it keeps me from having to buy (new) larger pants.

So, I was out on Sunday, dutifully braving the windy mid 30s temperatures (I know – in a month or so I’ll dream of temperatures that high), walking my dog.  Usually I don’t expect to see wildlife when I walk the dog because, well, he’s a giant furry predator.

But this Sunday, nature rewarded me for getting out to walk:

I made my first ever positive identification of an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)!

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A male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) standing on prey it has pinned to the ground. Image provided by Bill Bouton via Wikimedia Commons. (The original post on Wikimedia Commons lists this as a female kestrel, but after my research, I believe the photographer got it wrong.)

The dog and I were walking past a fallow corn field when a crow-sized bird swept overhead.  But it didn’t flap like a crow or hold its wings like a crow – or any of the other birds I’m used to seeing, for that matter – so I was drawn to watch it for a little while.

It took up an airborne stance much like a red-tailed hawk “kiting” (see my Hanging Rock post for more info on that); it faced into the wind and held its wings half contracted, using the wind to hold its body relatively still 50ish feet above the ground.  From this position, I know, it was surveying the entire field with its superior vision, looking for a furry little morsel to eat.

I watched for a minute more, trying desperately to pick out field marks from 100 yards away against a bright blue sky. (Oh, how I wished for the awesome new binoculars I got for Christmas.  I’m going to have to start wearing them everywhere – do you think I can get away with it if I call them a “statement necklace”?)  It was difficult, but I was able to make out a rusty red head, a many-banded flared tail, and sharp, angled wings.

Reluctantly, largely motivated by an antsy pooch and a seriously cold wind, I moved on.  By the time we passed back by the field, the kestrel was gone, but those few field marks and some research in my guidebooks helped me not only positively ID the kestrel, but also to fill in the rest of the bird’s story.

Kestrels may be the smallest of our falcons, but they’re fierce and hungry – a big predator in a small package.  They hunt from perches or in mid-air (what I witnessed), searching open fields for small rodents and insects to eat.  They drop down on their prey and pin it to the ground with their talons, eating it right there or carrying it back to a perch to consume.

This choice in hunting method and diet differentiates kestrels from the small hawks (accipiters, e.g. Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk) and the other falcons (e.g. Merlin, Peregrine Falcon) because those birds prefer an airborne, avian diet – snatching songbirds right out of the air.  You may see one or all of these species keeping a wary eye on the bird feeder in your yard.  Don’t fret; this is just the energy of your bird feed spreading up the food chain, keeping all of the birds alive in the cold.

Not that a kestrel won’t keep an eye on your feeder if it’s hungry; kestrels are often called “sparrow hawks” due to their taste for house sparrows.  I don’t see them at my feeder because they’d prefer not to land in my back yard, where the ground level is ruled by the aforementioned giant, furry predator.

I was also able to ID the kestrel I saw as a female, for three reasons:

  1.  It had a rufous head (males’ heads are slate gray);
  2. it had a many banded tail (males’ tails are mostly rufous with black edges); and
  3. it occupied an open field hunting territory.

Apparently, female kestrels move south into their winter range earlier than males, and so they get the best territories.  The males are relegated to scrubbier and more forested territories, where they have to compete with the the small hawks and falcons for part of their diet.

Kestrels have a lot of territory to choose from, though, as they make themselves at home in both city and country.  Their smaller size allows them to hunt fewer square miles and still stay well fed.  (Think of them as the daytime counterpart of the Eastern Screech Owl.)

With a little luck, a little willpower, and a lot of warm layers, I’ll walk this trail more often as the winter weeks go by and see this fierce falcon female again soon.

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Hawking the Road (Red-tailed Hawk, Common 10 Birds of Prey)

The only reason I tolerate long drives is because I can look at beautiful vistas and try to spot wildlife.

My particular favorite is looking for hawks in the barren trees at the side of the highway during holiday driving.

Whether I’m driving or riding shotgun, spotting hawks in the roadside trees is fairly easy; I just scan for lumpy branches.  Most of the time the lumps turn out to be squirrel nests or clumps of leaves caught in a crag, but maybe 1 out of 10 lumps is a hawk!

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A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree. Check out that tail and those talons! Photo provided by MONGO via Wikimedia Commons.

The easiest, largest lump to find is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  They perch, still as statues, in the trees above the median, scanning the grassy area for a juicy little rodent that they can swoop down on and snatch up with their talons.

Red-tailed hawks, sitting nearly two feet tall and with a wing span over four feet, are the largest hawks in this area, beating out the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) by a few inches and the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) by over a foot.

Red-tails, like most hawks, are not the large birds you see soaring in the sky most often; those are usually vultures.  Look for how the bird holds its wings – if they’re in a slight uptilt, forming a wide V, think vulture.  A lighter bird with wings held flat means you may be seeing a hawk.

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Red-tailed hawk in flight. They look like a brown lump when perched, but when they’re flying overhead you’ll not only a brown head on a mostly light colored body, except for that rufous tail, of course! Photo provided by Bear golden retriever via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-tails will take advantage of a thermal (rising column of warm air) to carry them up to great heights where they can survey a whole field for prey.  They’ll also use a mountain updraft to hunt via “kiting,” which I described in my Hanging Rock post.  Also, it must be noted that the springtime soaring and free-fall coitus of a mated pair is fairly spectacular.

In everyday life, though, hawks are watchers and swoopers as they go about the business of catching the little mammals that make up the large part of their diet, including voles, mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels.

Whether flying or perching, the red tail is this hawk’s most reliable identifying feature.  A rusty red that many birders describe as “rufous” colors their entire tail, though it can also look peach or orange if sunlight is pouring through it.

Though you’ll pass them fast at highway speeds, you’ll be surprised how much detail you can see in a perched hawk.  I even spot the little hawks (Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned) from the highway sometimes.

You’ll have to take the first few miles to let your eyes adjust to differentiating lumps while also not driving off the road, but after that a long drive can be hawk heaven!  Even the kiddos might pry their eyes from their tablets to look for a hawk or two; have the right side of the car compete against the left side for who can find the most hawks.  My best count yet was headed west on Route 66 in northern Virginia after Christmas a few years ago – I saw a hawk every mile for at least 17 miles!

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Eastern Screech Owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

This year, so help me, I’m going to see an owl.

I haven’t seen one since we moved here from Louisiana.  (There I saw a barred owl sleeping on a tree branch while I waited in the pickup line at my daughter’s school.)

It’s not that we don’t have owls here – we have plenty!  I’m just a very diurnal creature, unwilling to leave my cozy bed in the wee hours to go looking for very nocturnal owls.

But, this time, I’m going to do it!  I’ve just signed up to be a part of this year’s local Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 19.  A fellow master naturalist and expert-level bird watcher talked me into it.

I’ve never participated in a Christmas Bird Count before because they start so early in the morning.  Voluntarily getting up and out of the house to meet the birding group by 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday in December???  No thank you.

But to see owls, I’m going to make the sacrifice:  I’ll meet my group not at 8:00 a.m., but (and here’s where I wish I was about to say 8:00 p.m.) at 5:15 a.m.! 

In my (only mostly joking) opinion, 5:15 a.m. shouldn’t even be an actual time, legally.  If not legally, then at least morally.  I’m surprised the presidential candidates haven’t weighed in on this crucial issue.

At 5:15 a.m. on that Saturday, I can guarantee that I will come prepared, dressed in many layers and with two full thermoses of piping hot, creamy, sweet coffee.  I cannot, however, guarantee that I’ll be willing to share any of that coffee.

There are no guarantees that we’ll see owls (though going with experienced birders who are likely to lead me to some is 90% of my motivation to participate), but if we do, it will be one of the four owls native to Virginia:

Good Morning Sunshine

A barn owl that I photographed in its enclosure at a zoo in Florida a few years ago. I sell this image as a blank note card entitled “Good Morning, Sunshine” in my Etsy shop.

  1. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
  2. Barred Owl (Strix varia)
  3. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
  4. Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

It’s this last one, the Eastern Screech Owl, that I’m most hoping to see.  The first three are big and impressive and so often used in birds of prey demonstrations and as zoo specimens that I’ve actually met them all before.

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See? It is adorable! This rufous morph Eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) was photographed by Bill Waller and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Humans just love big eyes, and the Mighty Mite has champion peepers, which is probably the reason for its genus name “megascops”, which means “big eyes”. “Asio” means horned owl, and our little buddy here does have those classic owl feather tufts that look like horns.

Not so with the “Mighty Mite”; at a Lilliputian 9 inches tall, this stealthy, nocturnal hunter is less than half the other owls’ size and more than twice their cuteness.  They are absolutely adorable, though probably not if you’re a mouse or earthworm or tadpole, which are all part of the owl’s diet.  (To learn more about any owl’s diet, try dissecting an owl pellet – the little ball of indigestible fur, feathers, and bones that they regurgitate after eating.)

These are cavity-nesting owls, small enough to make a home in a tree cavity that’s not much larger than they are.  In the wild they choose wooded areas to live in and they prefer to be near water.  Eastern screech owls will also happily move in to an owl box put up by a homeowner and help rid the property of insect and rodent pests for free!  These owls can be fairly common even in suburban areas and small towns (there are several living in downtown Blacksburg) as long as there are trees in which to roost!

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Here’s a photo of the grey morph of the Eastern screech owl, showing off those “horns.” Photo provided by Wolfgang Wanderer via Wikimedia Commons.

What the Eastern screech owl won’t do for you, unfortunately, is screech.  Or maybe that’s fortunate, especially if they’re living in your neighborhood!  Screech owls’ calls are better described as whinnies or ghostly trills.  Listen to their calls at their All About Birds webpage.

The screech for which they are misnamed was probably that of a barn owl, another species which doesn’t mind being around humans as long as there are rodents around to catch.  (Where there are barns, there’s generally stored grain or hay, which rodents come in to eat and then are, in turn, eaten by the barn owl.)  Hear the barn owl’s screeching scream call at its All About Birds webpage.

It’s good to be able to differentiate the calls, too, because a birder is much more likely to hear a screech owl than see one; their brown, grey, and white plumage pattern gives them excellent camouflage against tree bark.

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Now imagine this fellow not leaning out of the tree cavity and the cavity 10 feet off of the ground. Practically impossible to see. I’ve got my hopes pinned on a flash from those bright yellow, reflective “megascops”.

But I’m going to see one.  Why else would I get up and out by 5:15 a.m.???

 

Another #10minwri on the Common 10.  This one actually turned into a #20minwri, but I was having too much fun to stop in the middle!