Saturday, March 6, 2010

Show me your hooters - Day II

In spite of the fact that I had almost taken a northern hawk owl directly to the face I was not entirely satisfied with the outcome of my previous roadtip to Michigan's upper peninsula (hereon referred to as the UP). I was haunted by the fact I'd spent a day driving around an area where the previous day seven snowy owls had been seen, yet I had seen absolutely kack-all. Finding and photographing a snowy owl had once been a mild ambition, now it was personal. The very next weekend, at the earliest opportunity I reholstered my pipettes, turned off the bunsen burner and ran out of the building to jump in my car and head north.  5hrs later I pulled into a motel just outside of Sault Ste. Marie. Tomorrow morning I would be primed and ready for two days are dedicated exploration of the eastern tip of the UP. 

The next morning after a hurried breakfast I decided to start out with a quick look around the Soo Locks. I was hoping for some interesting waterbirds, but once I arrived it was clear that most of the area accessible was solidly frozen. Still, seeing as I was there I figured I might as well see what was around. I scanned around with my binoculars, and immediately spotted the silhouette of what looked to me like a great horned owl. A closer inspection wiped the silly grin off my face, replacing it with what might have looked to the uninformed like the kind of quivering upper lip that often precedes a tearful tantrum, although the more discerning would recognise it as manly stoicism.

So, no water birds, or owls for that matter but the area was not without avian inhabitants. Ravens were scattered around the park, croaking ominously down at me from the branches of the surrounding trees. I always enjoy seeing these truly magnificent birds; intelligent, beautiful and sporting an aggressive beak that simply demands respect. Disappointed that not a single raven quoth "nevermore", I moved on just in time to watch a bald eagle cruising down the length of the river; another bird that never fails to brighten my day.

Still, it was snowy owls I really wanted to see and if I wanted to maximise my chances of seeing one I would have to head out to the flat open fields which provide good hunting for them. As I was driving down through farmland, heading towards Rudyard, my attention was diverted by a huge flock of ravens making an ungodly racket. I stopped the car and set up my spotting scope to investigate the cause of the hubbub. I was unable to make out what they were circling around but I suddenly noticed that the trees behind them were quite literally dripping with bald eagles (and when I say literally I clearly mean metaphorically). 

I took the opportunity to have my first attempt at digiscoping; you can judge the success of that venture by the complete lack of digiscoped photos following! Thankfully, just as I was in danger of getting a little cranky at my lack of success I was distracted by the policeman who had pulled up behind me. Sure, I'm hanging out in the middle of nowhere in subzero temperatures looking through a telescope, it's entirely normal. Still, you can never be sure that a policeman will see things the same way so I was quite relieved to find out he was concerned I might have broken down in the middle of nowhere. Once he found out what I was actually doing he was a positive font of information. In face, he informed me, if I drove down the road a mile I might see a bald eagle, which might have seemed more exciting if I hadn't been looking at ten at the time!

As the extremely nice officer drove off my attention was once more diverted. What I had at first assumed was a juvenile bald eagle was clearly displaying white patches on the underside of its wings. I quickly found the bird through the spotting scope and sure enough in addition to the white wing patches the tail was white at the base with a broad dark band on the tip and the head was distinctly golden in colour. There was no doubt I was looking at a juvenile golden eagle. I can not tell you how many days hiking through scottish mountains have been spent searching and hoping for a glimpse of one of these beautiful birds. I hadn't even dared to hope for a glimpse on this particular weekend. Whatever happened from this point out, it was officially a great weekend.

Reluctantly moving on from the swirling mass of raptors and ravens I decided to follow up on a recent sighting of a northern hawk owl. I plugged the location into my GPS and headed off. However, I soon came to a junction and the direction I was supposed to take was clearly up an unploughed road with a significant depth of snow over it. So, history once again repeating itself. I carefully evaluate the road, pull my panties up, drop into four wheel drive and with a determined set to my jaw I manfully drive on. Approximately 50ft later, a cry of "Bollocks!" rocked the decidedly immovable jeep and with a slightly sheepish look on my face I got out to evaluate the situation. My evaluation concluded I was screwed. 

Fast forward to an hour later. It may be 15F outside, but I'm stripped down to my t-shirt and sweating like a pig in a blanket. Without the aid of a shovel I have dug out the ice and snow upon which I had run aground and had repeatedly pushed and shoved the jeep out of a never ending series of depressions in the snow. The whole comical episode had been performed to the amused chirping of a misanthropic red squirrel who clearly had never had so much fun, at least without the use of nuts. Eventually, I managed to push the jeep onto solid ground, and sweaty, slightly stinky and to my surprise still thoroughly enjoying myself, I backed onto a ploughed road and headed off to search for snowy owls.

Arriving at Rudyard, headed to Centerline rd and started my search in earnest. This was prime snowy owl country, and sightings in the vicinity had been regular all winter. Searching in this context essentially involves cruising down the roads at about 5mph while obsessively scanning every telegraph pole, wire, tree-top, fence post, and surface of the fields for any owl sized shapes. The task is complicated given the tendency for my windows to steam up in the cold, and for ice and crap thrown up by my tires to coat the outside of the windows. My eventual solution was to turn up the heater, layer up with my down jacket and drive with the windows down. Given how well these birds blend into the snowy surroundings I was quite concerned I'd simply drive past any birds present without spotting them, so my concentration was, to put it mildly, intense. 

Thankfully, I had travelled less than a mile before I spotted a white bundle of feathers in the top of tree that clearly looked out of place. My heart pounding, I got out and soaked in my first views of a snowy owl in the wild. The snowy owl is an extremely beautiful bird; the pure white plumage spotted with black markings seems clean and stark, very understated. The bright yellow eyes seem positively feline. It is also a fairly large owl, not the largest in North American but probably the heaviest. Unfortunately, my first snowy owl photographs were not of the highest quality. Getting the exposure right for this bright, highly contrasting bird turned out to be non-trivial and required some experimentation.

The owl sagely observed the bizarre bipedal ape frantically snapping photographs from behind my jeep and decided he didn't care for that at all and headed off for a more scenic view elsewhere.

However, I like to think that this last look back was a wistful one, imagining a friendship that could have been formed if it wasn't for his intimacy issues.

I got back in the car and relaxed with a huge shit-eating grin on my face. Whatever else I saw on this trip I had already achieved my goal. I had dreamed of seeing a snowy owl since I was a small kid, but back in England they are rarely seen south of the Orkney Islands which are not particularly accessible during the winter months.  From this point onwards everything soon was going to be a bonus, it simply wasn't possible to go home disappointed. I could list off at least 20 boreal species that might be found in the area this time of year that I would dearly love to see and I was full of high hopes. Still feeling euphoric it wasn't long before I spotted my second owl sitting atop a telegraph pole. There was a second car parked up a little way from the pole so I pulled up the far side of it and jumped out to snap a few quick shots in case the owl decided to fly off. 

I then headed over to the other car to introduce myself to the occupant of the other car whom I assumed was another birder or photographer. There is normally an easy-going camaraderie among birders so I was rather shocked to be brusquely ordered to stand over to the side and stay still while he ignored my outstretched hand and stalked off  into the field. I was livid, who the hell did this guy think he was? I should clarify he wasn't simply making I didn't get too close and disturb the bird, which would have been a very reasonable concern, rather it was clear he didn't want me spoiling his shots. Trying to put my rising irritation out of mind I moved round to get a better vantage point to view the owl, all the while trying to figure out what this guy was actually doing. He had first walked in the opposite direction from the owl, quite some way in fact. He had then dropped into a crouch and was fumbling with something from his pocket. I realised the owl was also watching him intently and switched my attention to the owl again just in time to catch him swoop from his perch and head directly towards my mannerless companion. I was treated to some gorgeous views of his graceful and silent flight as he flew by, landed briefly and then flew a few hundred feet away and settled on the ground.

I watched as my mysterious birding partner first circled round to get closer to the owl and then dropped down and essentially commando crawled closer to the owl, camera shooting the whole time. I should mention, that in my enthusiasm upon spotting the owl I had not taken the time to put a coat on, so I was already by this time shuddering with cold and my fingers were on the fast train to painville. However, moments like this when watching wildlife are rare and unpredictable, there was no way I was risking missing anything while I went and put a coat and gloves on. Eventually, the owl returned to his position atop the telegraph pole and I walked over to my new companion to get to the bottom of the unusual behaviour I had just seen. 

It turned out that he was an amateur photographer who had come with a collection of mice to entice the owls closer to his lens and more importantly to give him a chance to catch them displaying hunting behaviour. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this practice, although I understand it is common practice for many wildlife photographers. In general, I suspect conditioning these birds to associate humans with food is unlikely do them any favours in the long run. I'd love to hear the opinions of experts in the wild, who in my experience have very high ethical standards for the most part in their interactions with wild animals.

Still, I couldn't deny I would not have gotten such exciting views of this snowy owl if it wasn't for the mouse baiting going on today. Whatever my reservations about the practice, it was clear that the owl was not stressed by the situation, coming voluntarily close to take the released mice. I decided to take advantage of the situation and settled down next to Mr self-important birder as he placed down one last mouse. Within seconds of the release, the owl's head snapped around to focus on the tiny mouse, an impressive feat from probably 300ft away. Without hesitation, it again took off, this time heading directly towards me. I got to observe his absolutely silent approach, braking at the last moment whilst simultaneously bringing his huge feathered talons forward to grab the mouse.

As I headed back to my car the sun was rapidly sinking over the horizon. The owl flew back to his favorite position on the telegraph pole while I was almost directly underneath so I snapped a few more close up shots and then left him in peace.

I couldn't resist taking a shot of a beautiful sunset as I left. The pastel colours contrasting sharply with the austereness of the harsh northern winter setting. Then I headed off for Paradise, MI. Tomorrow I was planning to visit Whitefish point, a peninsula jutting into Lake Superior that serves as nationally important migration hotspot during the spring. Perhaps even more exciting was the thought of lunch at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery, followed by a hike down to Tahquamenon falls itself. 

The next morning I awoke to find the snow gods had thoughtfully laid down a carpet of snow about 6" deep during the night. Everything looked so goddamn beautiful it was entirely necessary to rush my breakfast and go yomp around in it at the earliest possible moment. I headed around the side of the motel and soon found myself in thigh deep snow; I highly approved of the situation. The decking at the back of the motel led directly down to the shore of Lake Superior and some jaw dropping views there.

Eventually I was able to drag myself away and back to my car. Finding a my battery strangely dead I quickly made friends with a local and grabbed me a swift jump start. I then headed off for the remoteness of whitefish point in the dead of winter. How could that go wrong? I figured there was a 45min drive so plenty of time for the battery to charge up ... had I known the state of my alternator at the time I might have not have been so gung ho. Regardless, I managed to traverse the unploughed roads without getting stranded, I'm clearly getting better at this. There is nothing like digging a jeep out of the snow for an hour to focus your skills. 

I strolled around the shoreline at whitefish point, breathing in the kind of beauty that only a northern winter can bring; deep pristine snow leading down to ice floes and then the frigid waters of Lake Superior,  snow laden pine trees and the deep silence that comes with a complete absence of birds. So much for my expectations of flocks of crossbills, grosbeaks, redpolls and purple finches. Eventually, my stomach makes it known it is time for food and beer and I realise my stomach really is a seat of wisdom. Tahquamenon here we come. 

After a dinner of delicious locally brewed beer and hearty winter fodder it's time I got myself some exercise. I left the jeep looking conspicuous, the only car in a car park full of snowmobiles.

I head off through deep untrodden snow excited at the prospect seeing the magnificent Tahquamenon Falls partially or fully frozen. The last time I had seen them was in September, huge and swollen with dark red tannin stained waters. However, it was not to be, all the paths leading down to the waterfalls had been chained off-limits and while I was sorely tempted to jump them and carry on regardless I behaved myself and limited myself to some distant views through the trees.

Still it is hard to stay disappointed too long when hiking in the deep snow. You are both distracted by the scenery and working far too hard. However, I was once again finding the birds notable in their absence. Apart from a lone downy woodpecker and a few black-capped chickadees I saw no birds the entire hike. I headed back to the jeep and headed back down south, only to be stopped by a flock of birds feeding on what appeared to be grit on the road. Finally, some wildlife! The birds were too skittish to allow me to approach very closely but I was finally above to get my scope on them and confirm I was looking at pine grosbeaks. A life bird for me and a stunningly gorgeous one at that.

I swung by Rudyard one last time on the drive home, capturing one fleeting last glimpse of a snowy owl as it flew off into the dusk.

Then with a certain amount of sadness that the weekend had to end I headed my jeep south and headed for home. One last mini-adventure on the way home. While following car tracks on yet another unploughed road was "mildly" surprised to find that the tracks had led me off the road and into a ditch. I managed to control the car for some distance but eventually the inevitable happened I span round and lodged myself irrevocably sideways in what turned out to be a rather large ditch. Life is just packed full of fun new experiences somedays! After a 45 min wait and very nice, competent young man arrived and quickly demonstrated that he gets plenty of experience dragging people like me out of ditches. I got back on the road, stopped from refreshment at Ugly's bar and made the onerous journey back home.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Show me your hooters - Day I

Rather than start 2010 with the traditional new years resolutions this year I took a fresh, bold, new approach and instead embarked on a exciting new obsession. Specifically an obsession with owls. 

Over the previous months, I had observed a steady stream of random owl sightings being posted by various birders and photographers whose work I follow. I started to feel distinctly dissatisfied with the complete and utter lack of owls in my life. Initially, I simply assumed that owls were rarely seen and I shouldn't feel bad about it, but this constant barrage of sightings by other birders was starting to make this stance a touch unsustainable. There was nothing for it, this situation simply had to change. I surgically removed my eyelids to ensure that I wouldn't miss any hot hooter action that might be going on, however brief, and my year of the owl was underway. 

It was necessary to first procure some transportation, and so after nearly 3 years without a car I finally bought a second hand Jeep Grand Cherokee. Already this beautiful, beautiful hunk of love on wheels has changed my life for the better. The freedom to get out and explore has been simply intoxicating. I hadn't truly appreciated the extent to which not having a car had been limiting my birding adventures. It was clear to me that such a momentous moment needed to be celebrated with a road trip, and seeing as I now own a 4x4, there was no question that I needed to follow the snow and head north. My mission for the weekend was to track down and hopefully photograph the northern hawk owl and snowy owls. Both birds had been reported recently in northern Michigan and I'd never seen either in the wild ... It was on!

As soon as I was finished with work on the next Friday, I jumped in my jeep, pointed her north and didn't stop til I hit Petoskey, MI. All I knew about Petoskey was that it was home of the "world famous" Petoskey stones, and that a northern hawk owl had been sighted regularly just 10 miles from the town. I arrived late, checked into a motel and headed out for dinner. I spent the remainder of the evening, and the following morning over breakfast pumping the locals for information on local bird sightings. Apart from a few small inaccuracies (I remain unconvinced that northern hawk owls are larger than a golden eagle) this information proved to be an invaluable resource. 

As soon as I'd managed to stuff enough food down my gullet to ensure I wouldn't need to think about food for a good long while I hit the road, following the coast of lake michigan north and west towards Harbor Springs. It was not very long before I forced to stop while a "gobble" (seems as good a collective noun as any) of turkeys took their sweet time crossing the road in front of me. Seen close up their plumage is nothing short of fantastical; iridescent and full of texture. It was a delight to watch them so close up, surely a good omen for the rest of the day?

A few hundred feet up the road I turned north and headed into the general area where a northern hawk owl had been frequently seen over the previous few weeks. As I crawled up the road, my eyes scanning the tops of every tree, post, telephone wire frenetically I was laughably unaware that this behaviour was to become a semi-permanent compulsion by the end of the weekend. Reaching a junction that had seen frequent sightings of the owl I pulled off the road, grabbed my binos and hopped out to take a good look around. No owl, but the first car that drove past, slowed down to inform me that the owl, I was almost certainly looking for, was currently hanging out in plain sight at the very next junction down the road. 

Almost giddy with glee I jump in my jeep and hit the gas, only to find that I was firmly stuck in a snow drift. Not OK, it was entirely clear to me that owning a 4x4 meant I could drive anywhere, yet here I was stranded a foot from the road. Crapsticks! Thankfully, people are particularly friendly in northern Michigan. It was a matter of minutes before a car had driven up, stopped, laughed, and then driven down the road to be exchanged for a pick-up to tow me out. More than a little chagrinned I was back in the game and I was hot on the scent of my quarry. 

I should mention that although the northern hawk owl and the snowy owl are particularly easy owls to spot should you be fortunate enough to be in an area they are frequenting. Unlike most owls both are diurnal; actively hunting throughout the day. Furthermore, they both tend to choose high vantage points to look for their prey: telephone poles, fence posts, the very tips of trees. In short, they could hardly make themselves more visible to the eager birder if they had a bright flashing neon sign highlighting their position. So, it hardly speaks to my keen observational skills that as I approached the next junction that I quickly picked out what was without doubt, a hawk owl perched at the tip of an improbably small tree branch.

I got to watch him for a few short moments before he decided to repair to another tree with a better vantage point, giving me a glorious view of his undercarriage and thickly feathered claws as he launched himself into the air.

Watching him perched in the top of this tree I was completely mesmerized by his uncanny ability to keep his head perfectly immobile in spite of the tree top moving quite vigorously in the wind. I can't stress enough the degree to which this particular ability has been honed by this owl; it is positively otherworldly. 

Eventually, the hawk owl decided to relocate to a tree in the backyard of a nearby house. Just as I reluctantly accepted that viewing hours were over, the owner of the house came out and invited me to come in and view the owl from his garage. His kind generosity afforded me some of the finest views of the day. The uncharacteristic hawk-like profile of this owl with it's long tail can clearly be seen in the following two photographs. A beautiful bird; I was completely in love. The moment was finally ended when the owl abruptly took off and swooped across the yard directly towards me, soaring no more than two feet above my head before disappearing into the surrounding woods. I gazed after it with a happy but slightly dazed expression for quite some time after it had disappeared from sight. 

Traveling further north I had been tipped off that there was a gas station which doubled as a butcher's. Each saturday, the offal and other waste was dumped in a nearby field, attracting large numbers of bald eagles. I eagerly headed there with visions of my award winning eagle feeding frenzy photographs clear in my mind. What I found was slightly underwhelming; piles of bloody hides, and a field full of blood stains and piles of fat along with a distinct lack of eagles. The very helpful butcher's informed me that I'd need to come back a day or two after the offal had been heaped out there. My dream shots would have to wait. 

It was time to head over the sublime 5 mile long Mackinac Bridge crossing over Lake Michigan/Huron into Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This is always a special places for me; it feels like a gateway into "God's own country" as the locals would say, and it's hard to deny. The country seems more rugged, more beautiful and substantially wilder as soon as you traverse the crossing. Icy fingers reach out from the shore, ice floes jostle, caught in the grip of the currents racing through the straits here. It is a winter world rich in beauty and majesty. 

A quick cup of tea in St Ignace was followed by a quick scan of some nearby patches of open water, revealing both common merganser and goldeneye in the frigid waters. 

I raced the remainder of the fading winter sunlight to look for snowy owls in nearby Rudyard Flats but with no success. In fact, the remainder of the weekend was notably devoid of any of the northern birds I was hoping to seek up here in the UP. The highlight of the rest of the trip was surely my exploration of Sault Ste Marie's nightlight. Highlight's included: the bathroom with toilet paper shared between cubicles; accidently tearing the toilet door off the wall as I left; a very random mexican meal while attempting to fend off the desperate advances of the locals. All in all, the kind of experience I cherish, if not one I'd particularly care to repeat. 

The next day was spent in a depressingly futile search for snowy owls. I drove down endless frozen and treacherous lanes in heavy freezing rain, knowing that no less than seven snowy owls had been spotted here the day before. I did see innumerable ravens and a beautiful rough-legged hawk, but no snowy owls. Finally, I admitted defeat for the day and headed south for the balmy "warmth" of southern Michigan. The weekend was over, but my obsession with owls, and specifically the snowy owl, was quite definitely NOT over. I'd essentially driven 1000 miles and other than the hawk owl not seen an awful lot for my trouble. I'd also loved the experience: the road trip up north, the scenery, the solitude, the challenge. I'd be back ...