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 ... 


  1. Nice Pix - and fine choice on the classic Cherokee, it won't let you down.