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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dallas Snowy Owl

Dallas Snowy Owl

Dallas Snowy Owl - These are the snowy owls attracting quite a crowd of onlookers across America as an ‘unbelievable’ mass migration continues to grow.
Bird enthusiasts are reporting rising numbers of the Arctic birds winging into the lower 48 states this winter in a mass southern migration.

Some states as far south as Texas are reporting sightings of the bird that is as white as the driven snow.Fosters.com reported that one snowy owl has even made it to Hawaii.
Thousands of the snow-white birds have been spotted from coast to coast, feeding in farmlands in Idaho, roosting on rooftops in Montana, gliding over golf courses in Missouri and soaring over shorelines in Massachusetts.
Greater competition this year for food in the Far North by the booming bird population may have then driven mostly younger, male owls much farther south than normal.

A certain number of the iconic owls fly south from their Arctic breeding grounds each winter but rarely do so many venture so far away even amid large-scale, periodic southern migrations known as irruptions.
'What we're seeing now - it's unbelievable,' said Denver Holt, head of the Owl Research Institute in Montana.
'This is the most significant wildlife event in decades,' added Mr Holt, who has studied snowy owls in their Arctic tundra ecosystem for two decades.Mr Holt and other owl experts say the phenomenon is likely linked to lemmings, a rodent that accounts for 90 per cent of the diet of snowy owls during breeding months that stretch from May into September.
The largely nocturnal birds also prey on a host of other animals, from voles to geese.
An especially plentiful supply of lemmings last season likely led to a population boom among owls that resulted in each breeding pair hatching as many as seven offspring.
That compares to a typical clutch size of no more than two, Mr Holt said.
Research on the animals is scarce because of the remoteness and extreme conditions of the terrain the owls occupy, including northern Russia and Scandinavia, he said.The surge in snowy owl sightings has brought birders flocking from Texas, Arizona and Utah to the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, pouring tourist dollars into local economies and crowding parks and wildlife areas.
The irruption has triggered widespread public fascination that appears to span ages and interests.
'For the last couple months, every other visitor asks if we've seen a snowy owl today,' said Frances Tanaka, a volunteer for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Olympia, Washington.
But accounts of emaciated owls at some sites -- including a food-starved bird that dropped dead in a farmer's field in Wisconsin -- suggest the migration has a darker side.And Mr Holt said an owl that landed at an airport in Hawaii in November was shot and killed to avoid collisions with planes.
He said snowy owl populations are believed to be in an overall decline, possibly because a changing climate has lessened the abundance of vegetation like grasses that lemmings rely on.
This winter's snowy owl outbreak, with multiple sightings as far south as Oklahoma, remains largely a mystery of nature.
'There's a lot of speculation. As far as hard evidence, we really don't know.’
The creatures stand two feet tall with five-foot wingspans.
With word reaching this discussion group about possible Whooping Cranes in central Nebraska, I would ask folks on this list to remind those that are not on this list of proper etiquette whenever coming across this species. This is particularly the case with the influx of out-of-state birds that may be visiting the state as a result of the Common Crane. As everyone knows, Whooping Cranes are state and federally-listed as endangered. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Nebraska's Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act prohibits harassment, harm, and pursuit of whooping cranes including any intentional or negligent act or omission that creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it in such a way that significantly disrupts normal behavior patterns, such as feeding or roosting. Harassment includes flushing the birds to flight during observation.
Instances of Whooping Crane harassment by wildlife photographers has increased in the past couple years. In spring 2010 in Nebraska, there were 3-4 instances of individuals approaching Whooping Cranes on foot in attempts to get better photos. In doing so, at least two of these individuals trespassed on private property. One of these cases was turned over to law enforcement and I anticipate law enforcement will be increasingly involved in future instances.

Whooping Cranes should never, ever, be approached on foot. Observers should always view Whooping Cranes from a vehicle or a blind and, ideally, stay 2000 ft. from any birds.

If you see someone approaching, harassing, or shooting a Whooping Crane, please collect some details (e.g., license plate #, description) and contact law enforcement.

I apologize for the lecture. Furthermore, I wish Whooping Crane location information could be provided freely to the public so everyone could take every opportunity to see this species. I am disappointed a few bad eggs ruin it for all the good eggs.

I am disappointed too, but I accept that bad eggs ruin good eggs. Yes, birds may or may not be harmed by this type of irresponsible behavior. There is no doubt, however, that birding itself is damaged. When responsible birders refuse to act, the jerks win.A friend of mine once observed that we often admire qualities in birds that we find irritating or even abhorrent in people. She was thinking in particular of the Great Kiskadee, a spectacular flycatcher whose garish dress and loudmouthedness she compared to a stereotypical used car salesman. Love it in the bird, hate it in the human. She was joking, of course. Mostly.

In a parallel but more serious vein, I was really struck by the juxtaposition of two blog posts yesterday about Snowy Owls and the trials they have faced this winter as so many have come south: Ted Eubanks' here on the ABA blog and Greg Neise's at the North American Birding Blog.

They're both great posts, well-crafted and thought-provoking, and I find myself largely in agreement with the sentiments expressed in both of them. But I can't help feeling there's a double standard at play so extreme that it demands some careful consideration. Not so much in the posts themselves, but in the responses they've gotten.

Greg's story of the Peregrine/Snowy encounter was greeted with comments like this:

"Awesome!"

"that was incredible, oh to have just one of these encounters, lucky ducks!"

"Whoa. Totally awesome to see. I'm glad they got photos to share with the rest of us. Wow, wow, wow!"

While the video of the owl being flushed that Ted links to inspires such disgust in cyberthrush that he suggests that, "... this guy should have a scarlet letter 'J' tatooed directly to his forehead," recalling both the extreme social ostracism of The Scarlet Letter as well as Brad Pitt's punishment for captured Nazis in Inglourious Basterds. And cyberthrush isn't alone in his outrage. The internet has been groaning with the cries of birders protesting the flushing of Snowies, as any recent reader of the New York Birding List can attest.

In short, when a birder/photographer harasses a Snowy Owl, oafishly flushing it once, we're ready to light the torches and grab the pitch forks. But when a Peregrine Falcon mercilessly strafes a Snowy Owl again and again for five minutes, "...we [are] happy just to witness one of nature's greatest gifts."

I'm not suggesting that one set of these reactions is wrong and the other right. But the differences sure are striking.

Of course, I get it. It feels vastly different seeing a human clumsily and needlessly flush a bird versus watching a Peregrine use its consummate aeronautic skills to force one to throw its talons in the the air in self-defense again and again, even if the latter is surely far, far, far more stressful for the owl involved. If I myself were present at the events videotaped at Boundary Bay and photographed at the Chicago Lakefront, I'd certainly have been indignant at the former and exhilirated by the latter. My question is, why? And what, if anything, should we do about it?

I would say up front that I find the oft-expressed view that one is, "natural," and the other is not to be deeply unsatisfying.

But I am also more than willing to concede that our capacity for ethics places somewhat different obligations on us than on our fellow species. We won't get far with an ABA Code of Ethics for Peregrines. And yet I think that document is one of the ABA's most important contributions for birders.

And what human can say that Peregrines don't have Peregrine ethics? Ethics which may demand that they test the mettle of a potential rival and/or prey item?

And an ethical sense isn't the only difference, of course. If Homo sapiens had just been removed from the Endangered Species list, having been put in jeopardy by the activities of several billion Falco peregrinus, well, that would be a different world from the one in which we all live.

So I'm offering it up for discussion. Take a look at Greg's post and at Ted's post. Watch the YouTube video. Why does one owl incident make us shake with joyous excitement and another with rage?

And when you do encounter situations that call for action, such as birders or others behaving badly, I certainly encourage you to address them, confidently and, one hopes, effectively. But I encourage you to do so with a certain measure of understanding, even empathy. This planet is a hard place for all the life that inhabits it. That would be so with or without human beings. We've all been jerks at times and we've all flown with the angels at others. Let's help each other spend more and more time aloft.

With the invasion of the Snowy Owls this year, it was not really a surprise that there would be vagrants in some really unusual locations, but this bird really did it. It snuck into Dallas and hung around for several weeks before the birding community even found out about it. This first year bird has been “playing” with the night watchman of a marina on Lake Ray Hubbard for the past two weeks and nobody knew! The bird has a favorite light pole that she (as dubbed by those who know more than me) returns to on a regular basis. Eventually, somebody told somebody, who contacted somebody up north, who finally let the rest of the birding community of Texas know what gem they had in their midst. But enough about that, this is about celebrating the view of such a beauty.

I found out on Friday morning at 1:05 am that the bird had been seen all day by a photographer. Since I am off on Fridays and Saturdays, I made a decision to drive to Dallas the next morning. I got there at 1:00 pm, and there were almost no birders in the park at all. Amazing! So I made the rounds of the park and didn’t see the bird. Birders started coming in during that time and one group, the Dallas group set up shop across from the infamous telephone pole, and the Fort Worth contingent set up on the opposite side of the park, with a few of the birders scurrying back and forth between the two groups. No bird was seen all day, and everybody had a chance to sit and talk with birders from their respective home bases. I spent the afternoon talking with a number of birders, mostly from Houston, who wereintermixed with the Dallas crowd. When the bird was deemed a no show, I decided to stay over and see if the bird would come in on Saturday. I spent the evening with a couple of birders from Dallas.

The next morning, I showed up at 7:00, and the only other birder there was Carlton Collier, another Houston birder. We sat for several hours with minimal numbers of birders, then I went around the park to double check that the bird was not there. I had decided to check out a flock of sparrows, when another birder came and told me that he had heard that the owl was back! We headed straight for the parking lot where the bird had perched on a light pole on the opposite side of the parking lot from his favorite pole. I set up at a distance, as did all of the other birders, and proceeded to take pictures.Eventually the bird decided to fly to its infamous perch and flew right over my head and set up shop at a more comfortable location. I turned around, started taking pictures, then noticed that I was closer to the bird than any of the other birders. I had not moved when the owl flew over, but I felt out of place and decided to give up my spot and move back with the other birders.The owl found a spot that it was comfortable and preened herself and took a nap, periodically checking out the birds and birders.There have been valid concerns about the welfare of this bird. Obviously, the long-term outlook for it is not good, but the concern about the effect of all the birders does not seem to be warranted. I watched this bird for over four hours and everybody was respectful of the owl’s space. Since it has chosen the parking lot of a restaurant and bar on a marina, it doesn’t seem to mind the activity around her. Obviously, if people are following her everywhere that she goes, it will be hard for her to hunt, but I believe that this bird probably hunted near where it roosted last night and came to digest its meal at a place where there were few birds to bother it. The only real responses I saw from outside stimuli were when some grackles flew overhead. The owl did not even respond when a Coke delivery truck pulled right under the light pole that it was on. It returned to the same location this morning after having gone through yesterday’s circus of birders, so I would not worry too much about the typical birdwatching activity affecting it.

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