Friday, March 17, 2017

Pygmy Owls and Desert Reptiles

Northern Pygmy Owl in Tooele County, Utah, USA

I was beginning a new work week in my Salt Lake County office this past Monday when I looked out the window and was struck with the majesty of  the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains under clear blue skies. Temperatures were expected to reach into the 70s for the first time of the new year. We'd been through a winter of heavy snowfall and it was finally looking AND feeling like spring. I checked my calendar for Tuesday and made a swift decision to take Tuesday off so I could spend some much-needed time in the outdoors. I sent a text to my friend Eric to see if he wanted to join me. He had no hesitation on his part since he already had the day off. We made plans to visit a number of places, but I was particularly hopeful that we'd locate a Northern Pygmy Owl and confirm that reptiles were beginning to emerge from their winter retreats in our nearby desert. I admit that seems like an odd pairing of objectives, but that's what I wanted to do.

We spent the early hours before dawn attempting to locate a Long-eared Owl, which we did. We were able to hear one calling from the dark at Warm Springs WMA near Goshen, Utah. We also found a pair of Great Horned Owls and listened to them hoot back and forth to each other. As I was recording their courting calls the male flew over to the branch where the female was perched. They quickly copulated and then the male flew to another tree. It seemed late for Great Horned Owl copulation since they begin breeding in January and February here in Utah, but perhaps they had a failed clutch and were trying for a repeat clutch. Who really knows? In the same general area we heard a male Short-eared owl hooting from the tall grass of a nearby field.


Encountering three owl species in a matter of hours was fantastic, but we still needed to locate a Northern Pygmy Owl. We made a drive through Chimney Rock Pass and then up to Fairfield and over to Ophir Canyon. I love the wide-ranging public lands we can wonder here in Utah and other western states. We saw a Prairie Falcon, Golden Eagle, and small groups of Pronghorns along the way.

We eventually made our way to Ophir Canyon in Tooele (too-willa) County where we would begin our earnest search of a Pygmy Owl. Pinyon Jays were flying from Juniper to Juniper and giving their laughing calls as we entered the canyon. Scrub Jays and Juniper Titmice were also present in the lower section of the canyon. We stopped in one location part way up the canyon and began to scour the trees. I noticed the silhouette of a small bird that popped up from the ground and then perched on the backside of some trees downhill from the road we were on. With my binoculars I was able to confirm that it was a Pygmy Owl so we sat in the truck and waited a while to see what it would do. It was in hunting mode-twitching its tail, bobbing its head, and staring intently at times toward the ground beneath its perch. We eventually ended up watching the tiny bird hunt from a very close vantage point.

Northern Pygmy Owl Tooele County, Utah, USA

Northern Pygmy Owl Tooele County, Utah, USA

The owl pictured above was most likely a male. It seemed a bit small, but size is hard to tell without a relative comparison.

After spending a little time with the Pygmy Owl we made our way up the canyon where we discovered a Clark's Nutcracker and Steller's Jays. We turned around and headed back down the canyon and just as we drove past the previous Pygmy Owl location a larger female flew up to and landed on the tree right next to the road. We were able to see both birds at the same time and compare the relative sizes so we believe the bird pictured below is the female of a breeding pair.

Northern Pygmy Owl Tooele County, Utah, USA

Northern Pygmy Owls are diurnal birds, most active from dawn to dusk, and just over six inches long from head to tip of tail. They generally perch hunt, meaning they perch, wait, and then seize prey that passes beneath or near their perch. They generally prey on small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and even birds. When prey is seen they dive down and sink their sharp, powerful talons into the throat of the prey. If they take a bird they will pluck the feathers before consuming the insides of the skull and chest cavity.  You can see the sharp and relatively strong talons and hooked bill in most of the images I'm sharing. These birds seem rather cute unless you are on the wrong end of the food chain from them. From that perspective they are deadly beasts.

Northern Pygmy Owl Tooele County, Utah, USA

Northern Pygmy Owl Tooele County, Utah, USA

Northern Pygmy Owl Tooele County, Utah, USA



I never really plan on capturing video with my camera so consequently I'm never quite ready when the opportunity presents itself. The male owl was so accommodating while we were watching it so I decided to give video a  try. Unfortunately, it is hard to keep the lens steady without the use of a tripod when it is zoomed to 500mm. The first part of the video below was captured while using Eric's shoulder to steady the lens. Other parts were captured as I lay on my back away from the tree in which the owl was perched, rested the lens on my knees, and supported my head on the dried-out tree clump you see in the middle of the gravel area in the image to the right.

The video quality is best when viewed in HD.


On our way home we stopped at a friends house in Fairfield and observed a White-throated Sparrow, a rare bird for Utah. We also encountered a couple more roosting owls in Fairfield and a Golden Eagle that had a rather full crop that made us wonder what it had been eating, most likely one of the many jack rabbits that inhabit the sagebrush habitat surrounding Fairfield. We drove up and over Soldiers Pass at the south end of Lake Mountain and on the west side of Utah Lake. It is one of my local happy places. I have some great memories of camping with my sons and birding with friends at Soldiers Pass. We see coyotes, foxes, jack rabbits, reptiles, and unique summer birds that breed at Soldiers Pass during the spring and summer months. The desert habitat, lake, and distant mountains create beautiful landscapes that change with the seasons.

The View From Soldiers Pass Looking Over Cedar Valley to the West in Utah County, Utah, USA

We didn't spend much time birding Soldiers Pass. My objective there was primarily to check one of my favorite herping (reptile hunting) spots to see if the reptiles were surfacing for the season. I was delighted to see that several Common Side-blotched Lizards had emerged from their winter retreats. It felt good to be out enjoying the spring weather with the critters I had not seen since early fall of last year.

This Common Side-blotched Lizard Recently Emerged From a Winter Retreat at Soldiers Pass
Early Spring in Utah County, Utah, USA

Here is the final scene as Eric and I left Soldiers Pass and headed out to grab a late lunch of Mexican food before making our way home. Being in a desert, next to a lake, while surrounded by snow-capped mountains was refreshing and energizing. I can't wait to see what new discoveries will be made in the months to come.

The View From Soldiers Pass Looking East Across Utah Lake in Utah County, Utah, USA


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Cryptic Owls Discovered--Can You See Them?

Great Horned Owl Utah County, Utah, USA
There is a powerful owl that is about 2 feet tall with prominent ear tufts in the image below. Can you spot the roosting Great Horned Owl? I'll provide further clues later in this post.


People often ask me, "How do you find the owls you photograph?" Well, there are various ways to find owls. The most effective ways really depend on the species of owl to be found. After finding a couple of Great Horned Owls recently I thought it might make an interesting post if I captured and shared some phone images that illustrate how difficult it can be to spot even a large owl in its natural habitat. Contrasting the phone images with ones captured using my long lens will show the difference a lens can make.

Great Horned Owls are bulky owls so barren deciduous trees in winter make it a bit easier to locate them. However, even the right barren trees can provide pretty cryptic hiding places for large owls. When possible I view ideal habitat from multiple vantage points because the right perspective can be the difference between spotting and overlooking an owl. With time and experience you can learn to spot subtle clues that remain obscure to the average person and novice birder. I'm reminded of this when it still takes a minute or two of describing exactly where to look before an inexperienced observer finally exclaims, "Wow! How did you see that?"

Below is a phone video of the scene I showed at the beginning of this post when I asked if you could spot the Great Horned Owl. I captured the this video to share more of the habitat surrounding the cryptic owl. I panned from right to left to get the broad view of the wooded area and then zoomed in and panned left to right. With the third pan I zoomed in further and stopped panning when the owl was centered in the top half of the frame. Hopefully you'll be able to see the owl by the end of the short video.


The image below is from the phone again, but it is cropped so the shape of the owl becomes more visible. The owl's plumage blends in quite well with bark of the tree. The owl is now positioned near the center of the image.

Great Horned Owl in its Cryptic Daytime Roost in Utah County, Utah, USA

Each of the next three images were captured at different focal lengths with my Nikon 200-500mm lens. In addition to making the owl more visible they reveal how the owl's plumage is a nearly-identical match to the patterns and coloring of the bark and lichens where the owl is roosting. Coincidence? I think not 😉

Great Horned Owl in its Cryptic Daytime Roost in Utah County, Utah, USA
Great Horned Owl in its Cryptic Daytime Roost in Utah County, Utah, USA


Great Horned Owl in its Cryptic Daytime Roost in Utah County, Utah, USA
I found the owl below just as the sun was getting low to the horizon and right before the owl left its roost for a night of hunting. The owl is perched behind and just to the right of the tallest tree rising from behind the shed.


With my long lens at 200mm you can begin to see the owl's silhouette.


At 500mm you can see that the light of the setting sun is illuminating the face of the owl.


Chances are that when you find one Great Horned Owl during the winter months in Utah another can be found perched or roosting nearby. Great Horned Owls pair up for breeding as early as December and January and remain together to care for their young until all are hunting successfully on their own. These families will remain loosely associated until summer when the young disperse widely, as far as 100 miles from their nest site. Adults tend to remain close to their breeding grounds after their young break out on their own, but they become more solitary until the next breeding season when they begin to court again.

Great Horned Owl Utah County, Utah, USA


Friday, February 24, 2017

Bobbing for Apples and "Pishing" for Birds

Bobbing for apples was a pretty common party game when I was a kid. The game, simply put, went something like this. Someone would place a variety of apples into a large pan or bucket of water. Those playing the game would have the hygienic opportunity of trying to retrieve one of the elusively floating apples using only their mouths. Each player would get a turn until everyone had an apple or gave up on trying. Unless the apples were small, it required quite a few head dips and apples bobs to actually get one of the "used" apples. It seemed like good clean fun as a kid, but that game doesn't pass today's standards for preventing the spread of germs.

Yesterday I was walking around a friend's property in Utah County with one of my twin sons. We were looking for some macro birds (aka the big birds of prey) because my son is not a birder and the micro or "tweety" birds don't really keep his attention. We found two large, likely female, Cooper's Hawks and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. All three had crops that were bulging--a sign that there were a few less micro birds living in the area.

Just as we were leaving my friend's place I decided to play "pishing for birds", a super evolved form of the old bobbing for apples game. Pishing is better observed than explained, but it involves making a "pish, pish, pish" sound with your mouth. It tends to capture the attention of small birds hiding in thick brushy areas. You never know what you'll get when you "pish" for small birds. Well, within seconds of starting my pishing yesterday I won the prize. A rare little gem popped right up from its hiding place to a vantage point that allowed the two of us to make eye contact. It was a White-throated Sparrow, a sparrow considered rare for the state of Utah. As is usually the case when one of these is found in Utah it was floating in a pan of water, I mean hiding in a brushy area with a group of lookalike friends, the White-crowned Sparrows. The white and brown stripes on the head of White-throated are similar to our ubiquitous White-crowned Sparrows, but the yellow lores and white throat patch separate the rare sparrow from the more common sparrow. The bill of a White-throated is also kind of a dark gray rather than the almost orange color for the bill of a White-crowned.

White-throated Sparrow Utah County, Utah, USA

White-throated Sparrow Utah County, Utah, USA

White-throated Sparrow Utah County, Utah, USA
I am always amazed at the odds of being in the right place at the right time when finding a rare bird because the earth is a pretty big place.  Yesterday, I was in the right place at the right time for a Utah County, and Utah for that matter, birder.

Below are three images to compare the appearance of the White-throated with both a juvenile and adult image of  the more common (in Utah anyway) White-crowned Sparrow.

Adult White-throated Sparrow (Utah County, Utah, USA)
Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow
Adult White-crowned Sparrow

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Weather Loach. Weather What?

After Eric Peterson and I relocated and photographed the Great Gray Owl in northern Utah earlier this month we decided to drop by Farmington Bay WMA for a quick look before heading in to work. A group of Pied-billed Grebes caught our interest because we could see that they were diving for prey. We watched a number of grebes emerge from their shallow dives with small fish. A couple of the grebes emerged with prey only to be mobbed by other grebes wanting to steal the meal. One grebe was diving in an area by itself and came up with a Weather Loach, an eel-like fish that, while not indigenous to Utah, has become somewhat common in the marshes of Farmington Bay.  Weather Loaches are native to Asia, but they are common in the pet trade in the United States. I've read that they are sometimes used as bait fish as well. One way or another people have introduced the hardy species to Farmington Bay--and the loaches seem to be thriving based on the number of times they've been observed in the bills of carnivorous water birds at "the Bay".

It was fun to watch the grebe grapple with the flopping fish. The fish, of course, simply wanted to escape the death grip of the grebe's bill. The Grebe, of course, was trying to manipulate the fish into a position where it could be gulped down head first.

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA

Pied-billed Grebe with Weather Loach at Farmington Bay WMA, Davis County, Utah, USA
Well, the grebe won. I tried to switch my camera to video mode so I could capture the final seconds of the loach's mortal struggle. Unfortunately, the grebe swallowed the loach before I could make that switch and get focused. Maybe next time.