Monday, April 23, 2018

Screech Owl - 17 Apr 2018


When I gave mom a pair of bluebird boxes for her birthday (March 14) I found out that Louie had been making bird houses as a new hobby. I asked him to make me a Screech Owl box, and the next day he dropped off this beauty.

I went to Lowes and picked out (2) ½" galvanized steel stove pipe in 6' sections and bought a ½" coupler to connect the two. I then added a flange at the top to connect the pipe to the box. Unfortunately, after a day of strong winds I realized that ½" steel pipe was too flimsy. The box was bending in the wind.

So, I went back a bought a 10' section of 1" stove pipe, added a 1' section with a 1" coupler, and tried again. This time the pole was secure and stable in the wind. I pounded a 1.25" pipe in to the ground (12" piece) that I used as a sleeve for the 10' section, and shimmed the bottom to level. 

Just 2 weeks later I came home from lunch with Terry and Glenn and found this cute little gray-morph Screech Owl sleeping in the box!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Horned Grebes - 13 Apr 2018


A major winter storm is hitting the Midwest today, with Nebraska getting blizzards and high winds blasting Wisconsin. North of us is expecting snow, while we in the SE portion of Michigan is forecasted to get lots of rain and falling temperatures. This evening, though, the skies are calm and it is still mild (57F), so I decided to take a ride out and check the Moo.

I arrived a Mouillee Creek entrance at 5 pm and rode out along the Middle Causeway toward the Banana Unit. Water levels were already high in the SGA due to heavy rains earlier in the week. As such, shorebirds were all but absent; I did see one flock of 6 Lesser Yellowlegs fly into the Vermet Unit from the Humphries Unit.

Of the waterfowl variety Blue-winged Teal were the bird of the day. Dozens were scattering before me while small rafts of American Coot also held ducks like Ring-necked, Northern Shoveler, Wigeon, Redhead, and Gadwall. Mute Swans were concentrated in the Vermet Unit and the first Canada Geese babies were swimming behind their parents.  Tree Swallows finally appeared over the water, as well.

Cell 4 held the first of many Horned Grebes that I would see this evening. Common and Red-breasted Mergansers were still around, as well as Greater and Lesser Scaup, and a dozen Bufflehead.

I rode down to the south side of Cell 3 to see if any Snowy Owls were still around. I was actually happy NOT to see any. I believe they've finally flown back north.  I would see more Horned Grebes along the shore of Lake Erie, which was chopping as the winds started picking up.

At the SW corner of Cell 4 I found a nice Horned Grebe just relaxing near shore. It didn't seem to mind my presence, so I stopped and spent a few minutes digiscoping it from about 50' away.



canvas filter

I would find another along the North Causeway as I began my trek back toward the car. As I digiscoped it I noticed the other ducks beginning to scatter out toward the middle of the Huron River. Except for a much larger Common Loon that casually floated about 20 yds. out from shore.




I then spotted another. And another. Five total! But, they were too far out to digiscope and all I could do was scope them through the choppy waters.  I would try to spot them from Pt. Mouillee HQ, but I could not relocate them from the location.


Sunday, April 8, 2018

"Selfie!" - 5 Apr 2018


Even the birds are doing it now...

With snow forecasted this evening and cold weather expected for the next week, I decided to make an evening ride out at Pt. Mouillee to look for shorebirds. Skies were clear (but clouding up fast), and winds were calm (but picking up fast).

At 5 pm I started out from the Mouillee Creek parking lot and quickly saw how flooded the creeks and units were. I could expect to see no shorebirds... Waterfowl numbers were light in the Lautenschlager and Bloody Run Units, and the Humphries Unit was hosting only a few dozen American Coot. My only highlight was watching a Great Blue Heron go after a Great Egret out in the field adjacent to the Bad Creek Unit.

Winds were picking up and coming out of the south-southwest, which was somewhat foreboding, since I'd be riding into the teeth of it coming back. Sure enough, as I reached the Banana Unit and headed south I was riding into the teeth of a cold 25 mph wind. A few Canvasback, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Common and Red-breasted Merganser, and Redhead were swimming in Cell 4 while a couple of Herring Gulls soared overhead.

At the south end of Cell 3 I headed east toward the Lake Erie shoreline and the giant green tractor parked in the SE corner of the unit. It had been hosting a Snowy Owl all winter, and I was a bit surprised to see it still hanging around! I would spend the next 45 minutes or so slowly approaching the bird w/ the scope (I purposely left the Nikon D500/300_2.8VRII home - I lost the lens hood and need to wait for a new one to arrive). The trick was to hide behind the scope and backpack and take a step-or-two forward when the owl would turn his head away.

I managed to get within 50' of the bird and digiscope the crap out of the bird for 20 minutes. I alternated between stills, 4K video, and Slow-motion video captures. The bird dozed between head rotations, and occasionally scanned in alarm as passing Canada Geese and Mute Swans flew overhead.

My presence only became a concern when I walked back to the SW corner to retrieve the bike and slowly walked it past. It was beginning to get cold(er) and windier, and I needed to head back north. The owl flew out along the Lake Erie shoreline and landed a dozen or yards on a post next to the dike. I spent a few more minutes digiscoping the bird before it flew back to the tractor for (hopefully) a quiet, undisturbed evening.


As I rode out past Cell 5 I spotted a second Snowy Owl roosting on a log inside the dried pond just across from the NE portion of the Vermet Unit. I decided not to stop, and continued on toward the North Causeway and back to the car.

With the sun dropping low above the horizon I spotted a beautifully-illuminated Horned Grebe in breeding plumage. Its golden ear tufts glowed as it swam next to shore, so I decided to scope it in case it might be an Eared Grebe, but the bird dove as soon as I stopped the bike. It would not resurface until well out from shore. I decided not to attempt any digiscoping and reached down to pick up the bike. It was then that I noticed another Snowy Owl next to the shore just 100 feet up the dike!

I spent the next 15-20 minutes slowly approaching the bird as it hunkered down in the grass next to the rocks and quietly digiscoped in the now-approaching twilight. I loved how the owl blended in with it surroundings, and waited for it to turn its head so the sun bounced off its face. This would probably be my last Snowy Owl of the season and perhaps my most satisfying encounter.







Between the Long Pond and Vermet Units things were quiet except for the occasional Red-winged Blackbird, until I felt the need to stop the bike. Ahead on the trail appeared to be a possible bird in the grass, but I couldn't tell. I had to retrieve the scope before realizing that it was an adult Peregrine Falcon ahead of me. Gorgeous! I just had time to put the video on it before it slowly turned, defecated, then flew off over the Long Pond to the SW. I had the camera on slo-motion video, so the quality was not as good as 4K, but it gave me a couple of keeper frames. It would be a nice ending to a surprisingly great evening.



A WARNING for anyone heading down Haggerman Rd. and the Antennae Farm: the road is deeply rutted and has huge mud holes. I had to drive as fast as possible through it the entire length of the road in order to keep from getting stuck. Through mud-covered windows I did not see any birds of note.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

March of the Snowy Owl, Pt. II - 24 Mar 2018


Skies were clear again this morning, and chilly, with a bit more wind than last week. I grabbed the bike and headed to Point Mouillee, but this time parked at Siegler Rd. That way, I could ride out to the Banana Unit and (hopefully) keep the sun behind me as I worked my way south and west across the SGA. The ground was dry and riding was not too difficult.

I reached the junction of Long Pond and Vermet Units and found the first Snowy Owl of the day. It was on the North Causeway ahead of me, and per usual, severely backlit. It flew along the causeway ahead of me before landing on one of the unit markers. It stayed a while and allowed a decent approach, but lighting wasn't good, so I didn't mind when it flew off across the Vermet Unit.



I continued on around Cell 5 toward the lake and decided to see what the east side of the SGA would bring. A good chop was on Lake Erie, so there wasn't much in the way of waterfowl. The Huron River mouth held a good number of Greater and Lesser Scaup, Canvasback, Redhead, Northern Shoveler, and Ruddy Ducks. The first of six Horned Grebes were spotted in the northeast corner of Cell 5, while dozens of scaup retreated before me.

I spotted Snowy Owl #2 up ahead on one of the large water tanks near the east dike of the Vermet. It was relaxing after a meal (note the blood drops on its right leg) and enjoying the morning sun. I made sure to approach slowly so as not to disturb it. I would spend better part of 30 minutes approaching it while digiscoping from the edge of the trail.

The trick was to wait until the owl turned its head in the opposite direction, then take 2 steps forward and stay behind the scope. It took awhile, but allowed me to get within 150' so that I could get some nice digiscoped images and videos.




I have a preset on my Sony a6300 that allows more accurate autofocusing when I'm digiscoping using the camera's autofocus feature. This involves setting Contrast and Saturation to high settings so that the camera can more accurately center-focus (see my digiscoping article for more details). When I took this video it came out really Saturated, but did a wonderful job keeping sharp focus while the bird looked around in the blowing wind. I reduced the Saturation in Photoshop before rendering the video, so it came out very nice.



The owl eventually flew off into the open construction field at the north end of Cell 5 and perched on a dirt mound. I would spot 2 other Snowy Owls on separate dirt mounds in the same area, as well as another Snowy on the outflow pipe in the NE corner of Cell 5.

As I reached the NE corner of Cell 5 and began to scope that owl, Bruce Szczechowksi approached from the North Causeway and we spent a few minutes chatting. He would end his day with 10 Snowy Owls, while I would only see 6. Only...

We spend a few minutes watching the Snowy Owl ahead of us before it flew off along the shoreline and landed on the east shoreline of Cell 5. I continued on toward Cell 3  with the idea of looking for the Snowy Owl I saw last week on the tractor in the southeast corner. Winds were picking up, and I knew the ride back was not going to be fun.



As I rode around the NE side of Cell 3 and headed south along the shoreline, the large tractor came into view. I stopped the bike and got off long enough to put the binoculars on the tractor. No owl. Bummer. However, as I got on the bike and began riding, a Snowy Owl flushed from the rocks to my left - not 10 feet from where I was standing! All I could do was make eye contact with it as it rose up in a panic and fly back south. Right back to the tractor.


Determined not to flush it again I made sure to stay back and digiscope it from a safe distance. I was able to get close enough to see the blood on its face. I'm presuming a fresh meal, but wonder if it had an encounter with another owl?

I knew that riding past it would flush the bird again, so I continued on along the shoreline to the south end of Cell 2 before heading back west toward the Humphries Unit. Sure enough, the wind greeted me as I reached east side of the Humphries, and the wind was strong enough put a decent ripple on the waters. I spent some time scoping the numerous scaup, redhead, American Wigeon and Gadwall, but could not locate an Eurasian Wigeon. I would then muscle my way on the bike toward the Middle Causeway and head west toward the junction of Vermet, Long Pond and Humphries Units.

There, I found another Snowy Owl sitting in the grass to my left, which was odd since a DNR truck had just passed and somehow did not spook it. But, it flushed as I approached, so I took a few pics as it few north along the dike toward the North Causeway. It would then fly back to the Middle Causeway as I rode in its direction. I would continue on and back to the car.


Friday, March 30, 2018

March of the Snowy Owl - 17 Mar 2018


With clears skies and temps expected to reach almost 50F it was time to grab the bike and make a trip to Pointe Mouillee SGA. I hadn't been there since January, so I was a bit anxious to check on the Snowy Owls that still reside there. As of last week as many as 7 birds had been seen. Waterfowl have returned, as well, so there'd be plenty to look for, including recently-reported Eurasian Wigeon and Snow Goose.

I parked at Mouillee Creek at just before 8 am and rode the Middle Causeway east into the sun. Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows were heralding the arrival of spring despite the past new nights of temps in the teens. A thin layer of ice was on the pond surfaces, but there was plenty of open water to keep the Mallard, Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintail, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Redhead, and Ring-necked Ducks happy.

As I approached the junction of Humphries, Long Pond and Vermet Units, I spotted a Snowy Owl crouched next to the inside dike of the Long Pond. Someone carrying a large lens, Better Beamer and tripod was approaching the bird from the other way. Since I was looking at the severely backlit bird I figured I better get past it before it got spooked by the oncoming photographer. I rode past the bird and got off the bike while it just sat scanning its surroundings. I was across the dike and posed no threat.

Sure enough, the other person took a few photos of it while I watched from the other dike across the canal. As he continued to approach the Snowy Owl flushed and headed west. It then circled south and flew back eastward toward me! All I had to do was raise the Nikon D500 / 300/2.8VRII and fire away as it flew past me illuminated by the glow of the morning sun. Gorgeous! I could even see it turn its head and look at me while flying by. The snowy was carrying a fresh-killed American Coot, as well.












I don't know if the photographer was upset at missing his shot(s), or was angry with me for getting the shot(s), or if he thought I was responsible for it flushing. But, as we approached each at the junction I tried to let him know that the owl had landed just up the causeway, and if he walked carefully he could get a few more pics. All he did was mutter, "F*k, F*k, F*k, I don't care" and continued on past me toward the owl with no regard for the fact that I was about to digiscope it from 50 yds away. Sure enough, the bird flushed and flew toward the North Causeway, so I decided to mount up and head toward the Banana Unit.

I stopped long enough to see a pair of Sandhill Cranes in the grass next to the causeway and fly off back to the west as I approached.

As I passed the radio tower the sun was directly ahead of me and blinding me from the trail ahead where a second Snowy Owl was sitting. All I could see was a shadow lift off and head up over the burn to somewhere in the Banana Unit. But, as I sped up to get up the hill onto the Banana Unit the owl was perched right at the top of the hill, so all I could do was look at it as wide-eyed as it was looking at me. It flew to the north, as well.

Cell 4 was loaded with ducks, as was the Humphries Unit. Dozens of Northern Pintails resting on the ice were nicely illuminated by the rising sun in the Humphries, while dozens of Bufflehead, scaup, and Red-breasted Mergansers swam in the open waters of the cell. I wanted to get to the south end of Cell 3 and loop around to see if any other Snowy Owls were around, so I didn't stop to scope the scene.

As I reached the southeast corner of Cell 3 I spotted another Snowy Owl perched on a large tractor. I spent about 30 minutes slowly approaching it a few steps at a time to try and digiscope it without spooking it. But again, the sun was directly behind it so I had to get around to the north to get a better view. With no other recourse I walked the bike slowly toward it without looking up (hoping it might ignore me), but it flew toward Cell 3 along the Lake Erie shoreline.

I would catch up to it and get a few digiscoped images from the dike as it rested on railings just inside the cell. I spent 15 minutes watching it before it decided to lift off and fly back to the tractor.



I then headed back toward the North Causeway along the east side of the Vermet. I spotted another Snowy Owl quietly perched on the rocks just south of the new half-dike jutting into Cell 4. I'm assuming that this was owl #2 that I ran into earlier, so I digiscoped it quietly from about 200 - 300 ft away. It eventually flew off to the edge of the half-dike where hopefully it'll remain unnoticed for the rest of the day.





I continued onto the North Causeway where I ran into angry-photo guy. I tried asking him how his day was going, but he ignored me and kept walking. Ouch. I quietly wished him a better day.

The ride back to the car would be uneventful. I did see Don Sherwood in the parking lot and chatted with him a bit before heading to Haggerman Rd and the Antennae Farm.

Lucky for me Haggerman Rd. was dry, because it was deeply rutted even for the Ford Escape. As I drove toward the fenced-off fields I spotted several Horned Larks, an Eastern Meadowlark, then an adult Snowy Owl! It was next to the road up ahead, and as per usual, backlit by the sun. It flew off and landed in the middle of the field back toward U.S. Turnpike.  Just 20 yds beyond a second, juvenile Snowy Owl was roosting on the ground next to the fence about 200 ft away from the road. I continued on past it without disturbing it and headed home.

A nice surprise was waiting for me when I got home. My brother Lou built me a Screech Owl box out of cedar. I had talked to him yesterday and learned that he was building bird houses as a new hobby and enjoying the crap out of it. Thanks, Lou!

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