Monday, February 9, 2009

Upon Closer Inspection, These Owls are....

Well I have some good news and some bad news. We received a call from Kayo late Saturday afternoon. The owls we observed in the residential yard were not Great Horned Owls, thus removing them from our provincial list. The more Kayo thought about the owls, the more he doubted they were Great Horned. "They should be off nesting now" he told me. Kayo returned Saturday with another birder, highly experienced with owls. With a better angle and the additional experienced birder, Kayo determined the three owls were in fact, 1 Long-eared Owl and 2 Short-eared Owls. The good news then, the addition of Long-eared Owl (#255) to our life list!

This demonstrates how difficult it can be to identify owls. Even with many years experience it can still be arduous. After Saturday's phone conversation, I consulted our February 2009 issue of 'Birder's World'. Here is an excerpt from the ID tips article by Kenn Kaufman on identifying Long-eared, Short-eared, Great Horned, and Stygian Owls.

Perceived only visually, the owl could potentially be confused with a couple of species. Long-ears perched in trees may be mistaken for Great Horned Owls, or vice versa. The Great Horned is a much larger bird (it can weigh five times as much), but the size difference can be surprisingly hard to judge.

When Jean and I observed the owls, one of the Short-eared was almost completely hidden by the tree's branches. The Long-eared was the most exposed of the three. We could definitely make out the cinnamon-brown facial disks but I did not note the black marks above and below the eyes, one of the keys to identifying Long-eared Owls. Experiences of this nature can only make one a better birder.

Birding Saturday and Sunday was well enjoyed. On Saturday, visits to Jaycee Park and the marina in Port Dalhousie produced a variety of waterfowl but no additions to the year list. We did however have a lovely conversation with Jean's Aunt Joyce and Uncle Gino in the parking lot of Lakeside Park.

Late Sunday afternoon we visited 5th Avenue in west St. Catharines. Saturday night, Kayo informed me that he had observed a Snowy Owl in the same area we had observed the Short-eared Owl. Our first visit Sunday afternoon, travelling the entire 2.5 kilometres of the road, produced only Mourning Dove, House Sparrow and Red-tailed Hawk. We continued along more rural roads eventually reaching Rockway Conservation Area on the Niagara Escarpment. A solitary Northern Mockingbird guarding a stand of Sumac and chasing more than 120 European Starlings from his territory was observed. We continued in our car along more rural roads, descending the escarpment and stopping at the conservation area's entrance on 9th Street. American Tree Sparrow and Black-capped Chickadee were found, not easily I might add, amongst the mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees.

We returned to 5th Avenue a little more than an hour later and upon reaching the vineyard, we discovered the Snowy Owl we sought. There it stood, perched on a post and bobbing its head, as we viewed it through our scope. No lamenting this time. Not only was it interested in the humans admiring it but the coyote north of them as well. This was not the same Snowy we observed in December. There were less markings on the rear of the head of this owl.

Wow, minutes away from the downtown and we were looking at a coyote and a Snowy Owl. Best not let the St. Catharines Park and Recreation Department know of their presence, they may get the same treatment as the beavers recently did.

As we were enjoying the amazing view of the Snowy Owl, less than 50 metres away from our position, who would pull up in a vehicle from the opposite direction? Kayo and his wife, followed by two more birders (Blayne and Jean whom we met on the duck count) in a second vehicle. During our brief conversation, we all shared in an excellent view of the Snowy. You don't get many chances to be this close to an owl outside of captivity.

My wife Jean, a SPCA agent, had the opportunity to examine an injured Snowy Owl early last week. The owl was rescued from a narrow alleyway downtown and brought to the shelter for evaluation. Due to its non-life threatening injuries the owl was taken to the Owl Foundation for recovery. After a couple of months of rehabilitation the owl will be released in the province of Manitoba.

Jean and I returned home and toasted the addition of the Snowy Owl to the year list, #55, with a nice Chardonnay during our evening meal. We are now on par with last year's list. I will have some work to do if I want to catch Blayne. The Snowy Owl was #105 for him. He tries to tick as many species as possible, all in the Niagara Region, in the month of January. Something to strive for next year.

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