Molly and I were supposed to leave today on a winter road trip. Mother Nature and a fierce winter storm in southern Minnesota had other ideas. We are hanging around the Northland for one more day while the weather improves. Our plan is to drive to the American Southwest, and do a series of day rides on our bicycles.
The end result is I visited the “owling grounds” before sunrise one last time this morning. Obviously I had not planned on even being in the area. Thankfully, owls once they establish winter hunting territories can be somewhat easy to find. I was pleased to have calm winds, and decent light … while I searched for a Great Gray Owl to photograph 20 minutes before the sun popped over the horizon. This owl was extremely cooperative … allowing me to hike into position and get down on the ground such that I could capture’s dawn’s orange glow.
Yesterday I visited Yoki! It was fun to hang out with my Northern Hawk Owl. It had been a few weeks since my last visit. Yoki was kind enough to hunt for me while I shivered in the below zero temperatures. By the time we get home, all these owls should have moved off their winter territories in preparation for summer mating. As I noted … winter birding … “Owl drink to that!”
After 2+ days of winds gusting to 50 mph, this morning dawned clear and calm. When I made a trip up to my “owling grounds” I was pleased to meet up with the federally registered bird banders from Hawk Ridge. The banders also were in search of Great Gray Owls, and shortly after sunrise we spied an owl. It was fascinating and educational to watch the Gray Gray Owl be banded. The two individuals doing the banding were extremely considerate of the bird, and after taking basic measurements they cloaked the owl such that it was calm throughout the rest of the banding process.
I was appreciative of the time the banders took to help educate me about some of the information they look to learn from banding this bird (and others):
- Isotope residues in the feathers allows the owl’s summer territory / birth place to be identified. Stable isotopes that were integrated into the feather as it grew in can be analyzed to determine the general area of the world that has a similar isotope ratio. Learn more about isotope research involving saw-whet owls.
- Mercury residue is also found in feather samples taken from the owls. The feathers are sent in to federal labs for analysis. Obviously minimizing the amount of mercury in our environment is critical, and knowing the levels in any banded bird is useful information. Learn more about Great Gray Owl research via Audubon.
- The color or shininess of feathers helps age of bird. The bird we banded was a thin, but not emaciated first year female.
- Finally … the band itself. Assuming the bird is at some point recaptured or found dead, researchers can better understand migrations.
I had wondered whether the owls I have been seeing this winter were relatively local birds which had moved to areas with easier hunting (i.e. less snow), or from north of the border and thus more of a migrant. Eventually we will know that answer as this was just one of several owls banded.
Here are a few images from this morning …
Great Gray Owl Just after being Captured
Measuring and Inspecting Feathers
The winds continue to roar. Apparently there is a HUGE low pressure system north of us in Ontario. The end result has been two days of steady 35 mph winds, with frequent gusts to 50 mph. We have lost at least four trees in the yard / woods next to our house. One even made a glancing blow to the home, but thankfully no damage was done.
In short, it has not been good for birding or photography. With conditions like these, birds tend to hunker down and wait for better weather. The forecast show calming conditions (7 mph winds) and sun tomorrow morning. My plan is to take my first real birding excursion in some time.
Yesterday afternoon I tried to find a section of Lake Superior shoreline where I might find huge breaking waves, but when the winds blow out of the WSW our Minnesota shoreline is somewhat protected. While wave chasing near Gooseberry State Park I did find a few windblown Snow Buntings migrating back to the Arctic, and upon getting home my friendly neighborhood cardinal made an appearance. After a long Minnesota winter it is always nice to see some red in the woods!
Cardinal in Flight
Snowbuntings Times Two