Saturday, March 14, 2015

Owling the Outskirts of a Tiny Town on Friday the 13th

Great Horned Owl Giving a Hoot

I love looking for owls, especially Northern Saw-whet Owls, near the summit of the Alpine Loop where stretches of road from Utah and Wasatch Counties rise to meet at nearly 8000 feet. The roads that allow access to the summit are closed during the winter months and generally reopen each sprint around Memorial Day weekend. Consequently, I've been left only to dream of what the Saw-whet Owls are doing up there in the early spring months as their breeding season goes into full swing. Recently I was told there was a way to drive my truck up into that area from the Wasatch County side. The Utah winter has been extremely mild with very little snow so I decided to give it a shot last night with my friend Eric Peterson. Eric and I most recently had owling success during our Presidents' Day weekend excursion to Southeast Arizona. You can read about and see images from that fun-filled weekend trip in my most recent blog posts.

Last night we enjoyed the beautiful scenery of Provo Canyon and Deer Creek Reservoir back-dropped by the majestic snow-capped peaks of Mount Timpanogos as we made a 40-minute drive from our homes in Utah County to Heber Valley in Wasatch County. I asked Eric if he'd be interested in checking for Great Horned Owls along the way. He was certainly interested so we made a stop on the outskirts of the small town of Midway, Utah where I'd located a Great Horned Owl roost a few years before.

We employed some simple owling techniques to locate not one but two Great Horned Owls. We suspect they are a breeding pair. We searched below some dense conifers for evidence of an active roost. We discovered pellets, remains of prey, and feathers. The ground below one particular tree was littered with pellets. I wondered what DNA might be found in those pellets. No doubt bits of mammals we in them.

Although we had loads of evidence pointing to one particular tree it was the call of a male we heard from another tree that let us know for sure we were on the trail to a Great Horned Owl. Eric located a pair of rabbit ears that certainly wouldn't help any TV get better reception.

These owls are meat eaters and rabbits provide lots of meat, especially for a nest of hungry little owlets. Apparently even these dominant owls experience threats from nature. The feathers below appear to be Great Horned Owl feathers that were aggressively removed since several are stuck together at the base. It's possible they belong to another species of bird that became prey to the owls, but they appear to match Great Horned Owl feathers as far as I can tell. The natural process of molting would result in individual rather than batches of feathers being lost.

Once we heard the male calling just before the sun was going down we moved in its direction. It was coming from an evergreen that was very tall and heavily covered. I've put the owl dead center in the cropped image below to make it easier to see while also providing a since of how deeply hidden the owl was in the tree.

Here's another image from a slightly different angle that is more heavily cropped for a closer view.

The owl flew from the tree and over our heads. The sun had dropped behind the mountains so the lighting was very poor, but I managed to lighten up the image below to show some of the detail of the owl. The owl was merely a dark silhouette straight out of the camera so I'm pleased with how digital technology allowed me to reveal the hidden details of the original image.

We heard the female engage in the calling at one point so we think we know where she is on a well-hidden nest, but it was the male that put on a show for us as he flew from one perch to another.

I did my best to hold the lens still as I attempted to capture two short video and audio clips of the owl hooting. I had my tripod/monopod in the truck and it would have improved the steadiness of the video, but I opted to go handheld since we were quickly losing light. Be sure to watch the video in HD for the best image quality.

Our last look at the owl before we resumed our drive into the mountains for the Saw-whets was a silhouette high atop a distant tree. What looks like a tiny owl from this perspective is a bird that is on its way to imposing death and destruction on unsuspecting mammals.

We finally reached the road that was to take us into Saw-whet territory from Soldier Hollow, but it was closed to vehicles. Determined to find our owls, we decided to check another road that would lead to great Saw-whet habitat and made our way there. That road was closed as well. We decided to drive up a third canyon road get into higher elevations. Fortune was on our side with our third option so we pressed onward and upward. The pavement transitioned to mud and rocks and the mud and rocks gave way to snow pack. I engaged the 4WD and pressed forward to where we would find perfect Saw-whet habitat, a mix of conifers and aspens.

We made our first stop and attempted to whistle and call for Saw-whets. We could hear that someone was on the dark and treacherous road ahead of us. There was no way to park on the side of the road due to the narrowness of the road and the deep snow covering the sloping edges so we simply stayed in the middle of the road hoping no one would need to pass us on their way down. Within a few minutes a Saw-whet responded to us and a tiny dark figure flew right by our heads. It landed in a short aspen on the side of the road and began interacting with us. Moments later it moved to a conifer where it posed for some photos. I never get tired of seeing these 8-inches-tall carnivores.

As we were photographing the owl a man with a shovel came walking up the road. He'd parked his truck below where the snow pack began and was on his way up to help dig his son's truck from the snow. Apparently the people we heard above us were stuck. We offered help and then decided we'd back the truck down from our location rather than attempt to go forward. We found a place to do about an 8-point turn. Eric guided me from outside the truck to make sure I didn't get too close to the edge of a drop off and deeper snow. Once we completed that careful maneuver we began a slow decent to another spot that appeared ideal for Saw-whets. We hit another jackpot at our second stop with our second Saw-whet of the evening. We were now three for three on owling targets for the evening.  The second Saw-whet allowed us to watch and listen to it call for several minutes before we decided to continue our way down from the mountain.

About sixty minutes and a late-night, semi-decent, fast food combo meal later we were back to our homes from a memorable evening with owls on the outskirts of a tiny town called Midway.

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