Thursday, 15 March 2007

Hunting for the Ivory-billed Woodowl

Before I start, a short comment on the weather here in South-East Michigan:
On Tuesday we had 63 degrees Fahrenheit (equivalent to almost 20 °C) and on Thursday morning there was fresh snow on the ground. Madness!

OK, what is this post all about? Dare to guess?

No, it is not a report of a newly described species of Owl in Africa, the Wood Owl there remains (systematically) alone (nicer picture here).
No, sorry, wrong again: it is also not a typo, I did mean Woodowl, indeed, and not 'pecker.

Yes, all right, I tell you:
You see, as a new arrival to North American birding, I am absolutely fascinated by the Ivory-billed Woodpecker story. Hey, to most of you, this is probably a debate that's been going on for the last ... well ... roughly 60 years, sometimes more intense (like now), sometimes more subdued. But to enter the show now and really dig into it with a still unspoilt sense of humour is just great.
Just the number of blogs and websites on the topic is quite something and with everyone waiting for the definite photo to be shot any day now (or never?), checking these web sites for news is more exciting than checking the latest opinion polls for Ohio or Florida during an election in the US.
Back to the title of my post:
What do all the blogs and web sites on the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker have in common?
Well, apart from a repetition of the words "intriguing", "interesting", "data" and "evidence", they are characterized by a conspicuous scarcity of recent Ivory-billed Woodpecker encounters and especially photos. But one species we often find mentioned or even depicted there is the amazing Barred Owl, e.g. here. This is not all too surprising as it is apparently relatively common in the south-eastern United States.
The Barred Owl also occurs, be it in a reduced density, in South-East Michigan and the local email forum was recently just buzzing with reports of up to two birds showing very well at Stony Creek Metropark north of Detroit. And you see, this is where another factor suddenly makes quite a massive appearance: It is an owl and as such an impossible, invisible and de facto non-existing creature (see here), it is nice and big and most important of all, I had never seen it before.
So when Laurent and I were discussing the options of half a day's birding last Tuesday, there was a certain tendency to go for the owl. But of course, it is a far drive and there had been a multitude of reports of White-winged Scoters around Washtenaw County, so we were indeed a bit reluctant on reaching a verdict on where to go. These pictures then probably triggered the final decision: we went for the Owl!

So there you have it, the title of my post:
We went "hunting" for an owl that lives in the woods, is somewhat connected to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker thereby profiting from the mystique surrounding it and if you look closely here, well, it even has an ivory-coloured bill!

And here's how it went:

Driving from Ann Arbor to Stony Creek Metropark is not all that easy or quick when you don't know how best to get there and the road we decided to take would surely have terrorized even a Congolese Bush Taxi driver but at least on the way there the birds were with us. Best of all was probably a Sandhill Crane standing on the ice of one of the smaller - still frozen - lakes wondering where on earth his swamp went. This link here depicts the scene rather nicely, and all I can contribute is a Sandhill Crane from Michigan's Upper Peninsular taken in May 2005, but a picture is better than not a picture.

Eventually we got to the park entrance with the car still in one piece and inquired at the main office if there was any news regarding the Owl. The only information we got however was that the staff there didn't really know anything about the owl apart from the fact that a lot of people had come up to them recently and asked, so we were grateful for the description of the site in the email Laurent had printed out before the trip.

So off we went into the park and on to the parking area described in the email. On the way there came the next nice species of the day (after the Sandhill Crane) in the shape of a bunch of Wild Turkeys. Well, there may be scarcer birds in North America but the Turkey will always be an impressive bird to watch, so we were already starting to feel quite well and pleased. The Turkeys finally left the lawn and disappeared into the undergrowth, so we continued on our quest for the Owl, parked the car and proceded into the wilds of Stoney Creek Metropark.
Allright, admittedly, venturing into the wilderness there was not quite the same challenge as, say, the Yukon because the Barred Owl had been found in a bunch of pines along a small forest track right next to the parking area, but we still made only slow progress along the path checking each and every pine tree along the way. No owl yet, but looking up, a sudden flash of pale white blinded our sight and we became aware that what had just flown over us and pushed our retinas to their limits was not a Red-tail, not a Coop, nope, it was a plain brilliant adult Northern Goshawk! What a day! My first ever encounter with the North American subspecies of Goshawk, a form I had been searching for around Ann Arbor (well, around the Arb, to be more down-to-earth) all winter long finally made an appearance! Great!

That sighting however meant that we had at once used up a whole lot of our daily portion of birder's luck and I feared we would later regret it...
We had finally covered the whole area as described for the owl in the emails without success and I had a sudden rush of comprehension: it was indeed an OWL we were looking for and that Snowy Owl was indeed the exception to the rule and I was just a very naive fool to have thought times had changes. We had run out of pines and there was no owl in sight. Oh dear.
Beyond the trail was a small stand of around 30 or so dense and high spruce trees and I heard a single Black-capped Chickadee warning angrily. Oh, I know what you think now "that's the owl, that's the owl", but those chickadees have darn far-reaching warning sensors and I have chased a few of those angry bundles of feathers through the Arb to later find that - even though I had been probably 50 metres away at first - I myself was the likely source of disturbance that had caused the calls.
So I remained calm, but Laurent and I followed a foot path (seen on the picture below) into the spruce stand towards the chickadee (which by then had come to us and continued its scolding, proving me right in my less than optimistic approach towards owling by following angry chickadees).

Somewhere out there might be an Owl

We eventually split to check out each single tree from different directions for better coverage and what can you say, I needn't have worried all day with Laurent "Owl Scout" by my side. It was probably less than two minutes and he quietly called me over to look at ...

Can you see it ??
Y E S !!

The Barred Owl.
Yes, the Barred Owl, and a beauty. I know I shouldn't be saying this without a firm background of Barred-Owl-Experience but I am sure it was the most amazing of all the Barred Owls in the world, and I knew that by intuition even without having seen them all!
Below is a photo Laurent took of our owl in case you haven't found it on my picture above.
Here's our bird!!

Needless to say, the looks through the scope were just ... yeah, as I said: needless to say, you get the picture.


After around half an hour with our owl (of course it was "ours" by then), we continued our birding day down on Belle Isle. There had been posts about Scoters around the island so we were curious to go and look for them and Belle Isle is often a good spot in general. Well, it is unfortunately also a good spot for anyone in Detroit to enjoy a bit of outdoors recreation on a sunny day and we weren't what one would describe as alone on the island. So of course, with people everywhere the birds were not - everywhere that is.
First stop was at one of the duck feeding sites which hardly ever produce extraordinary species but the feeding frenzy is nice to watch and you get close-up views of a few species which are always appreciated, and a Black Duck amongst the Mallards and Canada Geese was a nice surprise.

Using binoculars here (above) means you are really getting down
to the details, the fine tuning of bird identification

Nice drake Black Duck - I had never seen that species so close before

Here too, like everywhere else in the world apparently, the ducks had a very hard time defending their own against the mobbing gang of the much more agile gulls.

Ever read "The Lost World", with the deciding battle between the humans and the ape-men?
Challengers words after the battle that left the ape-men mostly dead: "We have been privileged to be present at one of the typical decisive battles in history - the battles which have determined the fate of the world. What, my friends, is the conquest of one nation by another? It is meaningless. Each produces the same result. But those fierce fights, when in the dawn of the ages the cave-dwellers held their own against the tiger-folk, or the elephants first found they had a master, those were the real conquests - the victories that count."

One of these days, I predict, the ducks will rise against the oppression of the gulls at the feeding sites and finish them off once and for all in a decisive battle that will determin the fate of the world - if you're a Guller. So enjoy this image of a Ring-billed Gull in flight, it might soon be a rare sight and replaced by a hovering Mallard.

In the North of Belle Isle is a small lagoon which is a safe haven for birds unless frozen, which it mostly was when we got there. A small area of open water however had remained and we were pleased to watch a small flock of Canvasbacks trying to get some rest while a few Bufflehead were giving them a hard time doing so because of their energetic courtship / competition behaviour, chasing each other around like little puppies on the lawn. Oh yeah, there were also Canada Geese. One somehow tends to neglect the mentioning of them. Maybe it is because they are everywhere? Well, possibly.

The open river to the north of the Island was a maze of open water in between numerous small sheets of ice floating down. I suspect the quick movement of the ice made it a place too annoying for most ducks to stay at because there were none around. Not even a single Scoter we had counted on ... unreliable little rascals.

We finally had to leave Belle Isle to avoid the rush hour in Detroit and on our way out saw that quite a few ducks were stationed along the last bit of coast we had not checked, so we had missed the main attraction of Belle Isle that day by an unlucky accumulation of bad luck, but at least we made it through Detroit quite allright and in time to pay Ford Lake a short visit. There, we found (or rather re-found as it had been reported as being reliable at the site) a nice Horned / Slavonian Grebe and a mixed flock of Aythyas, mostly of Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Redheads and a few Canvasbacks as well as a Ruddy Duck but honestly, after Goshawk and Barred Owl that was all just the nice decoration, like the fruit and paper umbrella on your cocktail that you appreciate but that was not the main reason for really having enjoyed your drink.

So, what's next?
That's a question easily answered: Eastern Screech Owl and Great Horned Owl.
Laurent mentioned how much he'd enjoy seeing a Burrowing Owl. We are a bit far here in Michigan from its regular haunts, but who knows: up to now, owling's been easy enough to regain some optimism.

Finally, here is a link you've probably all seen before, but it is just too good to not include in this post. Nature does have a sense of humour!

1 comment:

mon@rch said...

love the barred owl and screech owls! Wonderful list of birds you had! WOW