Saturday, February 9, 2013

Casting a Pellet AND Yard Bird Species #68: What's That All About?

I know.  It's a confusing title for a blog post, but it does allude to two birding highlights I experienced Friday.

I received a phone call from my birding and bird photography friend Eric Peterson Friday morning. He had just found a bird he knew I was trying to add to my species list for the new year--a Northern Pygmy Owl. It was perched on a power line near Aspen Grove, just above Sundance Ski Resort in the mountains above Provo Canyon in Utah County, Utah. I quickly grabbed my bag of gear and made the 30-minute drive into Provo Canyon and up the east end of Alpine Scenic Highway. Eric and the owl were right where they were when I got the call. The owl was content as it perched on the power line above the road. Eric and I took some photos and then followed the owl when it flew further up the canyon and back onto a power line.

Northern Pygmy Owls are about 6.5 inches long, are often active in daylight, and generally eat small birds and small mammals. It's one of the smallest carnivorous birds in North America. While these owls are residents to Utah and other mountainous western states and areas of the US, Canada, and Mexico, most sightings of this bird in Utah take place during the winter when their puffy little bodies are more easily seen as they perch on barren horizontal branches and wires along mountain roads. This vantage point allows them to keep watch over the open roads and spaces below them where unsuspecting birds and rodents pass and become easy prey.

While we were visiting and observing the owl we noticed that it opened its bill wide and started to heave. We knew it was getting ready to cast a pellet. For those who are not aware, birds of prey often eat their prey whole. They digest the meat and fluids of the prey and eventually regurgitate the remaining fur, feathers, bones, etc. in the form of a compact wad of leftover stuff.  We focused our lenses on the owl when it began to heave and started firing away with our digital cameras. Below is a series of images of the owl as it heaved and ejected the unwanted wad of stuff.  I missed the actual ejection with my captured images, but Eric has shared one image where the pellet was captured mid-air, just after being ejected.

Northern Pygmy Owl Near Aspen Grove in Utah County, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Isn't this how people look just as they realize they are about to lose their lunch, blow chunks, or toss their cookies?

Northern Pygmy Owl Preparing to Cast a Pellet Near Aspen Grove in Utah County, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
Hack! This appears to be quite the process. The eyes are closing, a sign of intense focus, and the posture is beginning to lean forward.

Northern Pygmy Owl Preparing to Cast a Pellet Near Aspen Grove in Utah County, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
And here's the image, courtesy of Eric Peterson, capturing the the projectile and the force behind it--the process consisted of multiple heaves, eyes going closed, fulling gaping mouth.

Northern Pygmy Owl Casting Pellet Near Aspen Grove in Utah County, UT (Photo courtesy of Eric Peterson)
And here is an image of the wet, blackish pellet (~1/2 inch) after Eric trudged through snow up to his thighs to retrieve it and placed it on the road. You should be able to make out some fur and a tiny bone or two. Probably the remains of a small bird and/or mouse or vole.

Freshly Ejected Norther Pygmy Owl Pellet Near Aspen Grove in Utah County, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
As Eric and I parted I thanked him for calling me to see the owl. He asked me to call him if I found anything of interest. He was hoping to photograph a particular species. That brings us to yard bird species #68 and the second part of this post's title. It also shows that favors are returned among good friends.

I had just finished visiting with someone in my home and heard the trill of Cedar Waxwings coming from the backyard. I looked through the back door and began to scan, with the naked eye, a small flock of Waxwings. I was looking specifically for a larger, grayer Waxwing with rufous under the tail and around its dark mask. I was hoping for Bohemian Waxwings to be mixed in with the flock since we've had an irruption of them in the northern parts of Utah this winter. I'm not sure if that's the result of harsh winter conditions in Canada or a good breeding season that has the birds spreading farther to the south than usual.  Just as I was about to give up on my hopes for a Bohemian, a larger Waxwing flew into the Flowering Plum Tree near my back patio. Bingo! A Bohemian Waxwing! The bird Eric said he was hoping to photograph earlier in the day as we were observing the owl. I ran through the house locating my phone for Eric and my camera to document yard bird species #68 (according to my eBird records).  Eric arrived shortly after my call and we photographed the birds as we wandered around my backyard and the yards of two neighbors (permission granted of course--I called them prior to Eric's arrival).

You can see a comparison of the colors and sizes of Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings from one of my previous post by clicking here.  The images below were captured Friday afternoon.

Bohemian Waxwing Visits My Backyard in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Bohemian Waxwing Visits My Backyard in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Bohemian Waxwing Visits My Backyard in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)

Bohemian Waxwing Visits My Backyard in Pleasant Grove, UT (Photo by Jeff Cooper)
You can see a comparison of Cedar Waxwings and Bohemian Waxwings from a previous post by clicking here.


  1. Geez Jeff, these shots are amazing Seeing a Pygmy Owl in the first place is great, and casting a pellet??

    Your Waxwing is top notch.

    I would say something stupid like, "Hope you didn't use up all your luck." But of course, luck's got nothing to do with it here. Nice work!!

  2. I always enjoy your comments, Laurence. I have to thank my friend Eric for giving me a notice on the owl. Witnessing the whole pellet experience was definitely fortuitous. I was a little bummed when I saw the pellet being expelled through the view finder without having the shutter release in time to capture that precise moment. Oh well, we will be back out in the field again for another bird encounter.

  3. If that isn't the cutest little owl I've ever seen. The look on his face as he's about to hurl is priceless!

    Oh, and the waxwings are always a treat to see.

    Nice photos Jeff!

    ~ Sherrie (Bird Lady)