Sunday, September 20, 2015

Late-season Hotspot for Small Mountain Owls

I participated in a work conference at Aspen Grove Family Camp and Conference Center this past Thursday and Friday. Aspen Grove is a mountain resort that is owned by the LDS church and is used for family camps, recreation, and a range of conferences. It is located just up the road from Sundance Ski Resort in Utah County, Utah. The conference I was attending allowed for free time Thursday evening after dark so I drove up the Alpine Loop Road from Aspen Grove to where I thought the habitat was right for Flammulated and Saw-whet Owls. I wanted to see if I could locate owls and then show them to my boss and coworkers. I went searching solo at first because I didn't want to drag away a group of non-birders just so they could watch me stand in the dark making strange sounds. I wanted to have some confidence from finding owls before inviting others to join me.  I knew it was getting late in the season for Flammulated Owls because they typically migrate south to Mexico around the end of August and the beginning of September. I thought it would be an interesting test to see if Flammulated Owls were still in the area so I used an app from my phone to produce a Flammulated Owl call. I heard an owl call back to me after a couple of brief attempts with the app. The owl was calling from some aspen trees on the hillside below me. A few minutes later I heard an owl responding from the tree behind me. I moved parallel to the tree while staying on the road to triangulate and pinpoint the location from which the owl was calling. Once I honed in on the right location I put a light on it and found this cool little bird which is about seven inches long from head to tip of tail. For what it's worth the Flammulated Owl is the only small owl in North America with dark irises.

Flammulated Owl in Utah County, UT USA
After finding the Flammulated Owl and hearing a second one I decided to conduct another test. I tried to call out a Northern Saw-whet Owl using my own whistling call.  These owls aren't as vocal or responsive to calling after they've completed their breeding season so this would be another challenge on most occasions this late in the year. Luck was on my side again, however, and I had two Saw-whets responding to my calls within minutes. I used the same triangulation process to pinpoint the location of one owl and then put a light on the spot to reveal this cool little guy. The Northern Saw-whet, about eight inches tall, is my favorite species of owl. I like the following image because it includes both deciduous (an aspen in this case) and conifer trees, the preferred habitat for both Flammulated and Saw-whet owls.

Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA
Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA
I believe the following images are of a second owl. The first owl showed a light tip on the upper bill. This one has a solid dark bill all the way to the tip. This Saw-whet flew into and began calling from a nearby tree so I spent a few minutes photographing it as it alternated between watching me and looking in other directions.

Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA
It is always interesting to watch owls twist their heads so freely. I captured the image below after the owl had turned its head 180 degrees to observe something behind its location.

Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA
As I was getting back into my truck I heard an owl begin calling from the other side of my truck. This one was at eye level and did not flush as I moved around to the other side of my truck for a very close look. The focused look on the face of the owl below captured the curiosity this bird had in the whistling call I was making.

Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA
Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA
After a brief interaction with both species of owl I went back down to the conference center and invited my boss and some coworkers to return to the location with me. I was able to call in and point out a handsome Saw-whet owl for them. They were thrilled to have such a unique experience with a curious little owl. It was fun to hear them puzzle over how I was able to find the owl for them.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A New Generation of Common Nighthawks

Common Nighthawks are quite common throughout the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months. I first became familiar with them when I noticed them flying circles around stadium lights during evening sporting events.  I learned that they were chasing and feeding on the flying insects that were drawn to the lights. They have very tiny bills as you'll see in some of the images below, but their mouths extend back to beneath the eyes. Their "gaping" mouths are great for snatching flying prey. Nighthawks are mostly active at night, but they are sometimes seen flying in daylight, especially during twilight hours. The distinct wing and throat markings of nighthawks are shown in the image below.

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawks have a rather long migration from South America so they tend to arrive here in Utah a little later than other migrant birds. Once they arrive they seem to get right down to the business of breeding. I'm glad that we consistently have breeding populations along some of our local rivers and in pockets of our local deserts. Males and females can often be seen flying together during the breeding season. During courtship the males will make a steep dive and then curve their wings near the bottom of the dive to create a "whoosh" sound as the air rushes through their flight feathers.

Common Nighthawks in Utah County, UT USA

I was showing an out-of-state visitor to some of Utah County's diverse birding habitats several weeks ago when I happened upon a Common Nighthawk nesting site beneath a Juniper tree. We were walking through a desert area that had a mix of sagebrush and junipers.  As I walked toward a particular juniper a female nighthawk flushed from beneath the tree and landed about 15 yards away.

Female Common Nighthawk Distraction Display Near Nest Site in Utah County, UT USA

She began a distraction display which made me realize we were near a nest site. I captured a short video of this particular female to show her protective display. This clip shows the initial display and then ends when she feels she has successfully deterred us from the nest site.

Nighthawks don't actually build nests. They simply lay their eggs on bare ground or gravel rooftops. Consequently, we walked carefully with our eyes to the ground to avoid stepping onto eggs or chicks that might have been blending in with the ground below us. We actually discovered two eggs and then allowed mom to lure us away with her short flights and distraction displays. She was a good mama bird.

Common Nighthawk Eggs in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk Eggs in Utah County, UT

I am fascinated by the cycle of life so I returned to the nest site a week or so later and concealed my presence with a portable blind. I had hopes of watching the new generation of nighthawks develop from one stage to the next by making periodic visits.  Mama nighthawk was still incubating eggs and did not flush since I remained in my blind.

Female Common Nighthawk Incubating Eggs in Utah County, UT USA

I let another week pass and returned to the site again in the blind. I noticed empty egg shells where mom had been incubating them during my previous visit.

It didn't take more than a few minutes to realize that mom and two chicks were just a few feet away from where the chicks had hatched. Mom moved toward the chicks as I started to back away from the site within my blind.

Female Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk Chicks in Utah County, UT USA

Female Common Nighthawk and Two Chicks in Utah County, UT USA

One chick moved under mom's chest while the other remained visible in the image below.

Female Common Nighthawk With One Chick Beneath and One Chick at Chest in Utah County, UT USA

I couldn't help but wonder how these birds raise their young on bare ground. They blend in rather effectively with their surroundings and mom is adept at distracting possible threats from the young ones, but they are still extremely vulnerable to the coyotes, badgers, rattlesnakes, and other predators that roam the desert floors. I hope these two young chicks progress to the point of making their first round trip flights to South America and back so they can continue the cycle of life by creating their next generation. I wonder if they'll return to the same desert for their own breeding seasons.

My most recent trip to the same general habitat resulted in a close encounter with what appears to be a male with all those bright white throat feathers. The female nighthawk did not show nearly as many white throat feathers.

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Michigan Owl for Mom

My mom raised me to be a night owl. She and I would often visit late at night as she would be doing laundry or when I returned home from a night out as a teenager. We were in the midst of continuing that tradition this past Thursday while I was visiting her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. We were talking about my interest in wildlife photography when she told me she wanted to see a "Michigan" owl in my online photos. Well, the night was still young at 11:30 so with her encouragement I drove a few blocks to a small cemetery which I had noticed earlier in the day and thought would be good habitat for a Screech-Owl. I was a little sheepish about playing a Screech-Owl call from my phone when I arrived at the cemetery and I realized how close I was to some neighboring homes. I didn't want to draw attention by shining my light into the trees if an owl did call back to me. I had a small window of opportunity so I pressed forward with my attempt to call in an owl. Within a few minutes I heard the distant call of a Screech-Owl. A couple minutes later I saw the silhouette of the owl move across the sky above my head. The owl perched deep inside a tree that was on the other side of the fence that separated the cemetery from private property. The owl called back to me. I moved along the fence line until I found a vantage point that allowed me to put a light on the owl and capture some images.

It's not a bad image, but the owl itself looks a bit worn. I noticed a bare spot revealing skin between the owl's left eye and the bill. The whiskers are missing on that side of the bill.

The only reason I'm sharing the image below is to show the shape of the bill. These owls are between 8 and 9 inches tall and seem harmless in many ways, but when it comes time to eat, and they do eat meat, instinct kicks in and that bill does serious damage to small birds and rodents.

I had a smile on my face when I walked back into mom's home late Thursday night...well, early Friday morning. It was a memorable moment to photograph an Eastern Screech-Owl for the first time with the encouragement of my sweet mother. Thanks for supporting my interest, mom. I hope you enjoy seeing your "Michigan" owl.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Video and Images of Great Basin Rattlesnake

I feel fortunate that, to date, all close encounters with rattlesnakes were preceded by an alert from the snake. Thank goodness their rattles worked as nature intended. The first time I heard one rattling I initially mistook it for some sort of grasshopper or noisy insect. Fortunately, on that occasion, a visual combined with the audible locked the sound of the rattle into my memory.

I recently captured some video of a Great Basin Rattlesnake my friend Eric happened upon while we were doing some photography in a desert area of northern Utah. I thought it might be educational and helpful to those who've never heard a rattlesnake give its warning. I was using my zoom lens to allow me to remain at a safe distance while providing a close observation.

This individual was about two and a half feet long and blended in well with its environment. The image below provides a decent view of four important parts of the snake's anatomy--the tongue, pits, eyes, and rattle.  The eyes, pits, and tongue help the snake detect prey while the tail is used to deter predators so it does not become the prey.  

Great Basin Rattlesnake in Utah County, Utah
The rattle of a rattlesnake starts as a button when the snake is born and a new segment is added to the length of the rattle each time the skin is shed. Shedding can occur multiple times a year. Some snakes lose segments of their rattle in the normal course of living so counting the segments is not a reliable method for determining age.  The sound of a rattle is the result of segments of the rattle rubbing together when the extremely quick-firing tail muscles cause the tail to shake up to 50 times per second. If all, or all but one, of the segments are lost the snake will shake its tail to no avail in terms of sending an effective alert to a perceived predator.

Tail of Great Basin Rattlesnake in Utah County, UT