Posts Tagged ‘owls’

A Family Trip with an Unexpected Find


Monday, February 4th, 2013

A Family Trip with an Unexpected Find by Josh Haas

While in Lafayette, IN for what would be our last Christmas gathering, I awoke well before sunrise to the sound of a baby playing in her crib.  Being up early has its advantages and like many mornings, I jumped on my iPhone for things like the daily weather, news, and of course a gander through the Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds app.  Using the “Find Birds with eBird” feature, I scanned the list and one bird jumped out very quickly.  A Varied Thrush had been seen the day prior no more than 12 miles from where I was staying.  This bird should be in California, let alone Indiana so it was worth the effort.  If you haven’t checked out this great feature in the app, it’s worth your time.  It’s quick and much better than some of the other apps that feature eBird searching.

Cooper's Hawk, Adult © Josh Haas

Cooper’s Hawk, Adult © Josh Haas

Unfortunately, after two morning attempts for this western thrush, I never did see it but I did get a nice opportunity with an adult Cooper’s Hawk before meeting a nice birder who mentioned having Saw-whet Owls roosting on his property.  That obviously perked some interest!  I jumped at the invitation and soon found myself riding in a gator across his property 6 miles away after a different bird.  Boy it would’ve paid to be prepared for the 12 degree temps but who would’ve known a family Christmas could turn into a birding adventure.  I suppose in our family, it’s very likely!

Sure enough, as we approached a small Cedar grove, we slowed and eventually stopped.  Looking into the woods, one can’t help but notice the many yellow ribbons hanging on trees marking where birds were or are roosting.  The gentleman does surveys daily to gather data about the individuals.   Amazing commitment…

Northern Saw-whet Owl © Josh Haas

Northern Saw-whet Owl © Josh Haas

All in all, he showed me three individual Saw-whet Owls.  One was even awake and willing to be photographed.  Oh man was I one happy Daddy!  This property was amazing and he told stories of the many species of Owls, Raptors and Passerines that fledged over the years from the 200 acre parcel.  This is another example of a great find and a genuine birder willing to share his great spot.

To see more of Josh’s work, get tips on photography, or to sign up for workshops and trips please visit

Photo Essay: Owls


Friday, December 14th, 2012

Photo Essay: Owls by Josh Haas

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl © Josh Haas

Burrowing Owl:

After a frustrating couple days on Sanibel Island, we decided to stop at some of our favorite Florida birding areas as we headed back north to the Orlando area.  Our spot for Burrowing Owls didn’t fail us and we happened upon a cooperative bird that was spending time in and out of its burrow one March morning.  The slight angle of the ground and the birds demeanor are just sweet in this image.  The warm morning light sure didn’t hurt either!  This was definitely the shot of the trip and while it’s not the most popular at art shows in Michigan, it still has a special place in our house!

Camera Body & Lens- Canon Rebel T2i, 500mm f4 lens

Aperture- f4.5

Shutter Speed- 1/500th

ISO- 100


Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl © Josh Haas

Long-eared Owl Silhouette:

For those that remember an old post from me regarding “The Four Year Image,” this one took even longer!  My wife and I have been going to Whitefish Pt. in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for years.  The first time we spent a sunset on the hawk deck more than seven years ago we were lucky enough to have a couple Long-eared Owls fly through and I immediately had the goal of capturing that as an image.  The image would only fall in place with a perfectly clear sky, the right winds, and an Owl to take flight at the right time in order to capture the light and composition just right.  Every year since that evening, I’ve found myself trying for this image the one weekend in April we are there each spring.  This past spring, the stars aligned.  I had a clear sky, the right winds and a single Owl took flight just in time.  The result, more than seven years was this image and one happy photographer!

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark III, 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender

Aperture- f5.6

Shutter Speed- 1/1000th

ISO- 1000


Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl © Josh Haas

Great Gray Owl:

This image is brought to you by way of a 3 hour drive one winter morning beginning at 4am.  The goal was to be set up before first light for a bird that had been incredibly cooperative just days before.  Unfortunately for us, after the long drive we came upon a bird that had a free handout from the evening before.  The bird sat as we waited for hours and hours.  By the end of the day, the bird hadn’t moved and while I was hoping for flight shots of a Great Gray Owl but sometimes, it doesn’t always go the way you planned.  Later that night when I was going through some of my images from the day, I found one with the bird looking straight at the camera.  After a little cropping and some thought into some matting I snuck away with a great image.  Not at all the image I had hoped for but still one I was very happy with!

Camera Body & Lens- Canon Id Mark III, 500mm f4 lens

Aperture- f5.6

Shutter Speed- 1/200th

ISO- 200


Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl © Josh Haas

Snowy Owl:

Talk about a sit and wait bird.  This stunning adult male Snowy Owl was perched on a power pole as I sat waiting and hoping he’d take flight.  Sitting on the ground against the car in sub-zero temps far enough away to not spook the bird is tough.  Holding a 13lb camera rig at the ready hoping action would take place is harder.  Many times, when they do take flight in a scenario like this, they fly in the opposite direction but this bird launched and flew directly past me.  What an exciting event it was!  In the process, I was able to get some shots.  The floating manner this bird took on made it my favorite shot of the group.

Camera Body & Lens- Canon 1D Mark II, 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender

Aperture- f11

Shutter Speed- 1/1250th

ISO- 250

To see more of Josh’s work, get tips on photography, or to sign up for workshops and trips please visit

Throwback Thursday: Ghosts from the Arctic


Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl, juvenile © Scott Linstead/VIREO

Throwback Thursday: Ghosts from the Arctic by Kent McFarland

Like ghosts from the Arctic, snowy owls have descended from the far north this winter. They’re showing up in fields, along highways and even in a few backyards. These migrations southward from the arctic tundra are a birdwatcher’s dream. And like dreams themselves, they are neither predictable nor fully understood.

The classic theory held by ornithologists to explain the irregular migrations of snowy owls to this region has always centered on lemmings, a favorite food of the owls. These small rodents undergo population booms and busts. About every four years lemmings become incredibly abundant. Many scientists believed that after the lemming populations eventually crashed, snowy owls would head southward in search of food. Intensive research now shows this may not be the case.

Norm Smith, director of Massachusetts Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, has been monitoring snowy owls for more than 25 years at Boston Logan Airport. The broad stretches of land around airport runways tend to look like tundra and become a winter Mecca for wayward owls. But Smith and others have discovered a twist to the old migration theory. We actually see the most snowy owls in the New England during lemming population boom in the arctic, not after the lemming population has plunged.

It takes lots of meat to raise a snowy owlet. Researchers have estimated that a pair of snowy owls and a brood of nine owlets eat 1,900 to 2,600 lemmings during the breeding season from May to September. That’s about 325 pounds of rodent meat. Lots of lemmings allow for lots of owls, and when younger owls start outgrowing their natal territory, the adults chase them away. They have to find somewhere else to dine, which often means flying southward.

Smith and other ornithologists can count the number of young owls each winter. That’s because young snowy owls have plumage that is slightly different than their parents. Young females have extensive dark lines throughout their feathers giving them a black and white zebra pattern. While young males have a pure white bib under their chin and the back of their head is entirely white.

With small transmitters secured on the backs of owls, ornithologists have been able to witness some amazing flights by these owls. The transmitters periodically send a location signal to a satellite, which sends back information telling hat allows telling the birds’ exact locations. Smith has discovered that snowy owls that winter in Massachusetts spend summers in northern Quebec and Baffin Island, sometimes above the Arctic Circle. Some take a northwest route through New Hampshire and Vermont on their spring trip back to the tundra.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl, adult female © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

Take the year-old female that left coastal Massachusetts on April 1, 2005. She arrived east of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire on the April 5, and after crossing the Connecticut River, was in northwest Vermont by the April 8. On May 22 her signal came from the center of Hudson Bay. After perhaps hunting on the ice flows in the bay, she made landfall five days later on the bay’s north shore.

Snowy owls are capable of taking even larger birds. Smith reports he once witnessed a snowy owl take flight from a lamppost near the airport and accelerate toward a great blue heron that had just lumbered into flight along the shoreline. Much to Smith’s surprise, the owl punched the bird to the ground to make for one very big meal.

Humans have admired snowy owls for centuries. Their images have been found in ancient cave paintings in Europe. And this year, whether gracefully sitting in a harvested cornfield in Brattleboro, Vermont or a along the runway of Boston Logan Airport, surprised birders always stare at them in awe. Whether their dinning on Vermont meadow voles or arctic lemmings, this magnificent bird reminds us that these seemingly far off landscapes are bound together through the quiet flights of the Snowy Owl on their search for food.

Nature Stories: The Great Horned Owl


Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Nature Stories: The Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl adult,Eastern © Johann Schumacher/VIREO

The Great Horned Owl is an impressive bird, measuring up to 25 inches from head to tail, with a four-foot wingspread.  In North America, only the Snowy Owl and the Great Gray Owl are sometimes larger.  Even if heard and not seen, the great horned owl’s stature is discernible.  The four to eight resonant “hoots”  of both males and females can be heard for a considerable distance, even though they have a slightly muffled quality.   Not only its impressive size distinguishes this bird.  According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the great horned owl has the most extensive range, largest variety of prey and most variable nesting sites of any owl in North America.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl adult with owlets, Southwestern © John Cancalosi/VIREO

Hard as it may be to believe, the great horned owl’s courtship begins as early as January in the Northeast, and the female is often sitting on eggs by February. Photographs have been taken of great horned owls incubating their eggs while covered with snow.  These birds do not usually build their own nest, rather they seek shelter in which to lay their eggs, primarily in the unoccupied tree nests of other species of birds, particularly the abandoned stick nests of diurnal birds of prey.  Red-tailed hawk nests are preferable, but those of crows, ravens, herons, eagles, ospreys and squirrels are also used.  Occasionally they will nest inside a tree cavity or on top of a dead stump.

Any owl nesting this early in the year has to have a hardy constitution, which the great horned owl most certainly does.  Research shows that they are able to incubate eggs successfully, keeping them at a toasty 99 degrees Fahrenheit, when the ambient temperature is -27 degrees F.

While rabbits and hares are their favored prey, great horned owls also hunt other birds such as ruffed grouse and ducks, snakes, amphibians, insects and even skunks and porcupines.  Anyone who has the good fortune of being within smelling distance of a great horned owl, has a good chance of detecting the distinctive odor of a skunk, as the leg feathers of the predatory owl absorb the smell of this odoriferous prey.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl adult, Pacific © Gerrit Vyn/VIREO

One of the easiest ways to locate a great horned owl is to follow the cries of mobbing American crows and blue jays, which often tend to gather and harass owls during the day.  At this time the great horned owl is trying to rest, and often sits silently, attempting to ignore the raucous mob surrounding it.  Frequently, roosting great horned owls can be found perching close to the trunk of a tree, in the middle of its crown.

Sighting the Short-eared Owl


Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl, adult female © Greg Lasley/VIREO

Sighting the Short-eared Owl by Gene Walz

The first time I ever saw a Short-eared Owl, it was flying at eye level about ten feet from my car window as I drove along the west edge of Oak Hammock Marsh. It turned its head slightly and stared right at me with its big yellow eyes. And, instead of flapping away, it stayed with my car at about 20 miles per hour for several minutes. It instantly became my favorite owl.

The distinctive flight is what you initially notice. It truly does remind you of the flight of a moth. It beats its long, floppy wings in an unhurried, irregular way, occasionally dipping to one side or another as it hunts low to the ground for voles and mice and other small rodents.

Because it was so close and stuck with me so long, I was able to get a great read on its markings. Medium sized, tawny color with white belly and underwings, and a streaky breast. The head had a beige facial disk, and the yellow eyes were surrounded by black — as if it were wearing thick mascara.

Then you realize: hey, it’s ten o’clock in the morning, and I’m eyeball to eyeball with an owl! Another reason to like it. It’s diurnal; it hunts during daylight hours. It also hunts like other owls — at night (nocturnal). But your best bet is too look at dawn and dusk (crepuscular).

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl, adult male © Warren Greene/VIREO

Late in the day a week or so ago I went back to the same spot where I saw that first one. I’d heard there were a half dozen Short-eared Owls there. I only saw one, very briefly, at the very end of daylight, but that was enough.

Years ago, I saw about 20 Short-eared Owls over the course of a couple of hours. That can happen. Occasionally they flock together when the hunting is good. I’ve not been as lucky since.

But I have been lucky enough to see them in all four seasons. My second best sighting happened on a Christmas Bird Count. The wind was howling across the bald-headed prairie, and we weren’t finding anything. So we stopped at a short bridge across an irrigation ditch to see if any Rocks Doves were taking shelter there. We were desperate to find anything to add to our meagre list.

Suddenly three large, tawny birds boomed out from the cramped space. Grouse? No! Three Short-eared Owls! Because of them we ended up with the best list in the territory. Gotta love ‘em!

Birding Ain’t for Wusses Part II


Friday, June 1st, 2012

Black Vultures, adults © Doug Wechsler/VIREO

Birding Ain’t for Wusses Part I

Potoos are members of the nightjar or frogmouth family (Nyctibius). They’re weird-looking birds. Shaped like owls, they sit erect like owls, and they hunt at night like most owls. But they have wide, thin beaks, similar to a nighthawk. They look like a weird cross between an owl and a frog.

Because they’re so well camouflaged and hunt at night, they are difficult to find. They are at the top of most birders’ “must-see” lists in Central and South America.

Led by our guide Domingo and his assistant Felix, we set out at dusk one rainy evening from Sani Lodge in the Amazonia section of Ecuador. It was about 5:30 pm; the sun sets in the area at 6:15 or so, every day of the year.

We were all looking up for the potoos. We should have been looking down too.

All of a sudden Domingo, who was leading our group of five searchers, jumped sideways and backwards right into me. I staggered back into the next guy, figuring we were all going to topple over like dominoes. At first it was weirdly funny.

Then: “Essnake,” said Domingo, by way of explanation.

On the path four feet from my leg was a thick, brown snake with beige markings and a triangle-shaped head. I’d seen one of these vipers years ago in Costa Rica but from considerably further away. It was a Fer de Lance (Bothrops atrox), one of the deadliest vipers in the tropics.

We all backed away very slowly. Although they are well known for being aggressive, this one did not strike again.

We all eyed it for a couple of moments, waiting to see whether it would slither away. It didn’t. So Felix cut a new path through the jungle with his machete, and we proceeded with our hunt. We looked both up at the trees for potoos and down at the path for snakes.

After much searching, Domingo finally spotted a Rufous Potoo (Nyctibius bracteatus). Because it wasn’t roosting in its usual spot, it took us much longer to find it. And it was perfectly disguised – sitting on the top of a rotting, broken-off tree trunk like an extension of that trunk. It was on a nest, a simple hollow in the top of the trunk.

On the way back to the lodge Domingo used his spotlight to illuminate the path, especially where the Fer de Lance had been. He walked very warily. We all did. Luckily, the snake was gone.

Before we got to the lodge we heard and then spotted a second potoo, a Common Potoo (Nyctibius griseus). Plus a Tropical Screech-Owl (Megascops choliba). And we heard but couldn’t see a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl (Megascops watsonii). Our search for it was at best half-hearted. It was pitch dark now, and the Fer de Lance had gotten inside all of our heads.

At our nightly tally we noted that the most numerous birds of the day were TVs and BVs – Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures, far too ironic and ominous!

Turkey Vulture © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Later Domingo admitted he hadn’t seen the Fer de Lance until it was inches from his leg. He recognized it in mid-strike from the whiteness inside its mouth. It had missed him by inches, me by maybe a foot. Whew!

When pressed he said that no one among his people had died from a Fer de Lance bite in about four years. There was anti-venom at the lodge.

Three lifers and one huge scare. Ah, jungle birding! The epitome of adventure birding at its best.

With New Weather, Comes New Clothing


Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Tree with Shadow by Josh Haas

Living in the state of Michigan, I get to hear a lot of negative opinions when winter comes around the corner. I’ve never quite understood this. I look at winter as just another environment to try new things, but I think it’s because I have so many hobbies that allow me to enjoy winter as well as all the other seasons. Even still, most Michiganders would probably tell you they love our 4 seasons; even though it’s typically followed by the comment that winter is the exception.

Josh Playing in the Snow

For me, I truly love our 4 seasons; especially winter! Winter gives us the joy of getting our cross-country skis out or dusting off the snowshoes for an easy hike through the snow. Winter in our family also means birding for specialties such as Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Rough-legged Hawks and the rare Snowy Owl (although not so rare this season!) Regardless of the activity you enjoy, one thing remains in reference to winter: Proper clothing! If you find yourself staying inside through winter because of the cold, it’s time to invest in some new clothing. Layers are the key. It doesn’t have to turn into a binge of buying the best gear at top prices. It may be as simple as layering in clothing materials you already have or adding a few key layer materials to your existing collection. Materials like wool and fleece are great for layering. Cold feet always hinder our willingness to go outside in the low temperatures but many times, this is due to socks that aren’t meant for the weather. Again, wool socks or synthetics that wick moisture/sweat away will keep your toes toasty meaning winter becomes that much more enjoyable.

Josh Playing in the Snow

Think of some of the amazing things you may miss this winter if you’re stuck inside. This white season brings to light all sorts of possible outdoor activities. Look through some of that old clothing in the basement. You may have some great layers that will make winter fun. The more fun you have in winter, the faster it will go by and as I always say: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!!!

Come on People, I’m Not Cute!!!


Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012
Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl by Josh Haas

Let’s just bring it right out in the open: everybody thinks Owls are cute. The funny thing is, the cuteness typically ends at their face. While some Owls have this persona of “cute,” hopefully all of us can see through it and realize they are actually tenacious hunters at heart.

This blog brings to the table a story of a person who came upon an injured Great Horned Owl on the road. She thought the Owl looked at her with a “call for help” and they were immediately bonded. Because of this, she couldn’t believe this Owl could ever hurt her. After proceeding to ride in the car with the uncovered bird in her lap to the Rehabilitator, lucky for her the lethargic wild animal didn’t fully come to. For this situation, timing was everything. Luck was in the air as the bird stayed in a coma-like state just long enough. It wasn’t until about 30 minutes after the Rehabilitator had the bird that it finally came out of it and showed its true inner beauty of pure strength and power. Thank goodness the bird didn’t come out of it in the car with these folks. The Rehabilitator couldn’t believe how lucky they were and tried to ensure they learned from this experience.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl by Josh Haas

As humans, we are very lucky in many ways. We have a different way of understanding and adaptations that have made us superior beings. For some, this means we owe it to animals and nature to step in from time to time. This is a great attitude to have but keeping it in perspective is important. In some cases, Rehabilitators rarely see much money for their efforts and a lot of what they do is their own dedication of time and resources. Think about donating or volunteering with these folks and help them continue doing what they are trained to do.

It’s wonderful to have folks that want to help, especially in situations where human impact was to blame and not Nature but remember that any wild animal needs to be approached safely and by those with experience. For me, Owls aren’t cute. I’m always inspired by their incredible senses and ability to hunt with grace and power. Remember, behind that cute face is a wild animal that does one thing and one thing well: hunt!

A Bad Winter for Rodents


Friday, January 27th, 2012
Great Gray Owl

Adult Great Gray Owl © Brian E. Small/VIREO

It’s been a very mild and almost snow-free winter in Manitoba so far this year. Good news for us. Bad news for mice and shrews and voles. They rely on a thick blanket of snow to survive the winter.

A couple of years ago as I watched a Great Grey Owl along a road in the boreal forest east of Winnipeg, it suddenly left its perch on a hydro pole, swooped over the road-edge, and plunged, talons-first, into the thick snow. It immediately extricated itself and flew back with a small, squirming rodent.

Wow! I wondered. How’d it do that? I knew that owls had great hearing. But the snow was at least a foot thick. That, it seemed to me, was like me hearing a pin drop a block from my house.

Meadow Vole © Rob & Ann Simpson

And what was a rodent doing in a snow-bank? I thought they hibernated all winter or found a warm place like my basement to hang out.

That’s when I first heard about pukak.

Pukak is that small space under the snow and above the ground that forms when the snow piles up more than a foot or so and when the earth’s warmth melts the bottom layer to form passageways for insects, rodents and tiny mammals.

Cinereous Shrew © Audubon Guides

Mice and shrews and voles use these passageways to seek out seeds and grasses and bugs left over from the summer and fall. At irregular intervals vents form to allow gasses to escape. Owls listen to the tiny noises that emanate from these vents.

House Mouse © Rita Summers

With barely three inches of snow on the ground this year, pukak hasn’t yet formed. That means the rodents can’t leave their winter hideouts. They don’t have to worry about owl attacks, but they are in danger of starving. The thicker the snow, the better their chances of surviving the cold.

El Chickadee


Friday, January 6th, 2012

High on the list of “familiar birds” are the chickadees. Chickadees are common feeder birds and so friendly and trusting they can become tame enough to feed from the hand. But there are seven species of chickadees in the U.S. and only two, the Black-capped Chickadee and the Carolina Chickadee are widespread and well known. The Mountain Chickadee and the Chestnut-backed Chickadee are found in the Western region on the U.S. Another the Boreal Chickadee is found across the boreal forest in the U.S. and Canada, but two species, the Grey-headed Chickadee and the Mexican Chickadee are rare enough to require a special trip to add them to a life list.

© Brian E. Small/VIREO

I was lucky enough to travel to Alaska in 1996 for a float trip down the Canning River on the north slope of the Brooks Range. At one of our camps we found chickadees in a grove of stunted willows. Around the evening campfire we mentioned seeing probable Boreal Chickadees and our guide immediately said, “I’ll bet those were not Boreals!” A search the next day turned up not only Grey-headed Chickadees (then known as Siberian Tits) but the first known nest in North America as well. We watched as the adults fed young chicks in the nest – in fact it was the begging call of the young that first drew my attention. At the time of the sighting, we didn’t realize the significance and none of us thought to take a picture of the birds.

© Glenn Bartley/VIREO

I almost hesitate to call the next chickadee “rare”. Mexican Chickadees are common throughout the Sierra Madre of Mexico but qualify as a rare bird in the U.S. They are found in only two mountain ranges along the border and one of those ranges, the Animas in New Mexico, is a private ranch and not accessible to the public. That leaves the Chiricahua Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border as the only place for birder to seek out this bird for their life lists. Last summer, as a huge wildfire burned in the Chiricahuas for weeks, we feared for the island of high elevation habitat holding this small population.

© Bob Steele/VIREO

It was a relief for us to hear the familiar chickadee call on our first trip back to the Chiricahuas after the fires. Soon there were several chickadees mobbing a nearby Northern Pygmy-Owl in an area where the natural mosaic of a long-lived fire left the habitat relatively intact. Nature is resilient and that includes these tiny little birds.

© Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO