The Snowy Owl

Snowies are starting to show up around the northern U.S. Here in Western  New York there are three birds hanging out at the Finger Lakes Regional Airport (0G7) in Seneca, NY. The airport staff allowed us on the field where a friend of mine and I got many wonderful shots of a juvenile on the ground by the runway. The owl didn’t seem to mind so long as we walked

Juvenile Snowy Owl
Juvenile Snowy Owl

slowly and kept our distance. However, the bird finally tired of us and flew a short way down the field, our shutters continuously snapping as he/she launched.

We then drove to the nearby Empire Farm, and wouldn’t you know, there was another juvenile sitting on a metal roof. We were able to photograph it from both sides of the building, all the while sitting in our car. It was just a great photo op.

The juvenile birds are more likely to fly south during the winter since food is more plentiful here, as the young birds are not yet skillful hunters. However, every several years there is a great irruption of Snowy Owls (the last was two years ago), the birds sometimes going as far south as Alabama. These irruptions include far more mature birds and occur in those years when the tundra’s lemming population crashes, the owls’ staple food.

Although the Snowy Owl population is decreasing, according to the Birdlife International Data Zone:

The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

You can see more Snowy Owl photos at my gallery.

“Shrinking Bird Populations,” now available from my bookstore

Available through PayPal
Available through PayPal

This book is a collection of photographs of birds, started by my late wife and me, whose populations have been declining over the past 30 years. Taken in western New York, the Everglades, and Greater Sacramento areas; the book was peer reviewed by an ornithologist for factual accuracy and interpretation. You can find it at my bookstore.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl

These little fellows are transient in our area during March and April as they migrate to Southern Canada.  We have been looking for these birds starting last year in the small conifers in “Owl Woods” located in

Saw-whet Owl
Saw-whet Owl

the Braddock Bay area. Everyone seemed to have reported seeing them, except us. This year we made a more determined effort, carefully examining all the small conifers–no luck.  However, things changed last Wednesday when we  received “tip offs” from people coming off the trails as to where the two birds were.  Even with this knowledge it took some time to find them in their separate trees where they were sitting slightly above eye level.  One had its eyes almost closed, seemingly not put off by us, the other with eyes wide open.  They sat nearly motionless, allowing as many photos as we wished–some with fill-in flash.

Most owls sit motionless during the day and will let you approach, providing you don’t go into or up the tree. They blend in miraculously well, but once you find them they seem so obvious. You can find more photos at my on-line gallery http://stephenfieldingimages.slickpic.com/ .

The Red Crossbills

Red Crossbill (male)
Red Crossbill (male)

We went on an automobile caravan field trip with fellow members of the Rochester Birding Association in mid-January (each with a hand-held two-way radio). It was one of those winter overcast days so common here on the Great Lakes. These trips are always a bit frustrating for us bird photographers because the true birders are happy to spot with binoculars and high-power spotting scopes.  In contrast, I’m limited to my 100-400mm auto-focus lens, which extends to 560mm with the 1.4X tele-converter (without auto-focusing). The result is I get far fewer bird opportunities.

Red Crossbill (female)
Red Crossbill (female)

As we drove down a farm road someone spotted a flock of birds high in the trees so we all pulled over.  Shortly afterwards one person announced that it was a group of Red Crossbills feeding, with a few Pine Siskins mingling among them. Female Crossbills have no red, instead consisting mostly of olive-green. Found mostly across southern Canada Red Crossbills fan out to the Northwest Territories and into Alaska.  They wander irregularly, depending on the availability of cone crops. What we saw was an irruption into the northern U.S.; sometimes they fly to the deep south. Their population has been stable over the past several decades.

Since cloudy skies reflect more light than blue-skies I over-exposed by +2/3 to minimize silhouetting. The settings for the shot below are: 1/500 sec. @ f / 11, ISO 500.

Red Crossbill with Pine Siskin
Red Crossbill with Pine Siskins

Braddock Bay’s Common Redpolls

Braddock Bay Beach at the base of the spit
Braddock Bay Beach: Northwest
Looking west
Looking east

We went to the “spit” for a morning walk at Braddock Bay looking for Snow Buntings in late December.  It was one of those typical lake effect days, without the falling snow. Lake effect clouds are produced by cold air blowing across the relatively warm Great Lakes waters. These clouds hang over the lakes’ downwind side about 1500 to 2500 feet above ground level, with tops anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 feet. Often, we don’t see a sunny day for weeks at a time within 40 miles of the western New York shores, as shown in the following two photographs at the right, taken at the outset of our walk.

Although we did not get any shots of Snow Buntings, we did run into a small flock of Common Redpolls. These birds are about the size of Sparrows, though a bit chunkier; they breed in the sub-arctic woods. They winter further south, we are

Path along the spit
Path along the spit

right about at the southern end of their range.  They are unwary birds, so they were not at all put off by our presence. We found them on the path running down the spit, shown here in the photograph on the left.

Not the most experienced birders, we were not sure what we were looking at, so we just followed them along, snapping away with the 400mm lens, as they moved through the trees, feeding.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll
Upside down Redpoll
Upside down Redpoll

We continued further down the spit to the end.  Finding little else, we started our walk back.  Sure enough, these guys were still at it; I shot a few more photos. Then, one landed on the path, followed by others. I snapped more photos. Then, gradually, they started working their way towards me–coming as close as six feet away-shown the photograph, below.

Posing for the camera
Posing for the camera

There are about 30 million of these birds in North America, though not considered “vulnerable,” their population has been declining over the past 30 years.

When you go out on a cold, bleak day it is quite gratifying that it paid off. Next, we’re off to pursue those Snow Buntings, before they return north. If you’ve spotted any, let me know what type of settings you found them in.  If in fields, was the flock relatively near the road?

The Loggerhead Shrike

wpid811-SacPlain-7303.jpg

This is an interesting bird because it feeds on other song birds, among other things. Although it has no talons, it has a hooked beak that it uses to kill insects, lizards, mice, and birds. It then impales them on thorns to hold them while it rips them apart. We found this bird along the open marshes frequented by Sandhill Cranes and other water birds near Lodi, California.  It has a wonderful song; it repeatedly swoops down from high trees or wires, then back up to is perch. This bird is in decline.

wpid819-SacPlain-7315.jpg
Loggerhead Shrike

Spring Versus Late Summer

Last week-end my wife and I went birding with the Rochester Birding Association at Eastman-Durand Park. We continued to notice what we have been observing over the past several weeks–the woods and fields are rather quiet; when you do hear birds you don’t often see them! We attributed their hiding to the thick foliage of late summer.  Indeed, you need a machete to walk some of the paths that were easy walk-throughs in late spring.

Walking along, hearing one bird after another, I asked why they don’t show themselves.  As is so often the case, we were told it’s all about sex, territory, and reproduction. You see, by late summer the kids (chicks) have “fledged” so the parents are much less active. Since there is no competition for mates, nesting locations, and surrounding territory, the birds eat more, and fly and sing less (singing impresses mates and establishes territory–but takes lots of energy). The result is less bird visibility and more calorie/energy building for the fall migration.

Here are some shots from late spring. Aside from the thinner foliage, note all but the Red-bellied were photographed while singing.

Song Sparrow (Decreasing)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Increasing)

The great imitator.

Gray Catbird (Stable)

The Thrasher sings a series of melodious phrases, each only about two or three times. It does not imitate other birds, however.

Brown Thrasher (Decreasing)

Turning to the late summer crowd, some birds did reveal themselves and even sat for their photos. Hummingbirds often escape detection because we take them for large insects. Once identified, however, they often return to the same spot, increasing the chances of a photo opportunity.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (female, Increasing))

I call this one “Dropping In.”  Okay, I was lucky. Less singing–more eating. Getting out early in the morning seems to be even more important in late summer if you want to increase your chances of seeing birds–breakfast apparently is their most important meal.

Dropping In
House Sparrow (Decreasing)

Again, a tougher shot than the spring–this Red-bellied was much higher in the tree than many we saw during the spring.

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Increasing)

What’s been your experience with spring versus late summer for birding?

Oatca County Park

This has to be one of the best spots around Rochester to view birds.  Aside from one large mowed field and a recreation building for summer events, the park is  undeveloped,

Stream through Oatca

with a large stream coursing through. It’s flanked by wooded areas and open wooded areas further out. The following photo shows the stream in the late afternoon this past July. This is a favorite spot of fly fishermen who can easily stand mid-stream with waders.

One of my goals this season has been to photograph an Indigo Bunting. However, since their population is on the decline they are less likely to be spotted by us non-expert birders.  Our more expert colleague, Jim Adams, sees far more varieties than my wife and I, since we don’t always know exactly where to look (you’ll find the link to Jim Adam’s site on my sidebar). In any event, my wife spotted a male Indigo Bunting in thick bush in the open woodland area (exactly where you would expect to find them). I maneuvered for a clear shot and managed the following the images in low light.

Indigo Bunting–this way (Decreasing)

Here he is looking one way, and then, with his head turned. Needless to say, I’m quite happy with the shots, but I want to get one of these birds in an action shot.

–that way

However, one of my most spectacular shots is of a juvenile Great Blue Heron that allowed us to get close enough for a whole series of shots with the 100-400mm lens at 400mm. Here he is taking off. It was late in the day, note how the light strikes his under-belly. I printed a 13 X 19 of this shot for mounting and possible submission to a local photo contest. Please let me know if you have any tips for increasing the likelihood of locating these Indigo Buntings.

Great Blue Heron (juvenile, Increasing)