Wednesday, February 27, 2008

More about the partial amelanistic Great Gray Owl

Here is another photo of this bird thanks to Cheryl Farmer again. In this photo you can see there are patches of feathers lacking melanin as well as normally pigmented feather patches. The photo in the previous post shows the face of the owl and you can see the bill and eyes appear pale as well. I have followed the terminology proposed by Jeff Davis in the Sept/Oct 2007 Birding magazine to describe this plumage because I agree that it does a much better job than some of the other terms previously used (ie. partial albinism).
A recent post to the Montana Outdoor Birding Group by Chad Adams provided a link to an article on albinism in Great Gray Owls. In this article the authors Pentti Alaja and Heimo Mikkola describe a number of Great Grays with abnormal pigments in Yellowstone National Park and in nearby Idaho. Bozeman is not that far (as the owl flies) from these observations.

This is a striking bird and apparently many birders went to find it today. Unfortunately some of them trespassed into private property to "get a better look" at this bird and then the neighbor who originally reported the bird to Cheryl was verbally abused by some of the birders when she told them they were trespassing. The original observer unfortunately now regrets telling anyone about the owl and Cheryl, who was very careful not to disturb this bird when she took these photos, is rightly upset that she led to these transgressions by alerting the general birding public to the location of the owl. This is a shame and I guess I expected better of my fellow birders there (I was formerly the president of the Sacajawea Audubon Society in Bozeman). The result will probably be that observers who care about the birds they see will not report interesting birds they see to protect the birds and avoid rude and inconsiderate behavior. We all lose then.


Alaja, P. and H. Mikkola. 1997. Albinism in the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) and Other Owls in Biology and Conservation of Owls of the Northern Hemisphere, Second International Symposium. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report NC-190.

Davis, J. N. 2007. Color Abnormalities in Birds: A Proposed Nomenclature for Birders. Birding 39(5)36-46

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Spectacular Great Gray Owl

This owl was reported by Mike Lesnik near Bozeman, MT about a month ago but he only got a brief look at it and could not figure out what it was. Cheryl Farmer got this photo of the bird a couple of days ago. Wow.

Another Trip Around the Sun - Sage-Grouse Time Again

As February grinds to a close and management plans and meetings seem to drag on forever, I begin to really look forward to the upcoming field season. Another month or so and I will finally have a good excuse to get out of the office and begin monitoring Greater Sage-Grouse leks.

Monitoring sage-grouse means some really early mornings and long days but it is such great work to do. Watching these birds displaying never gets old and each morning is an adventure filled with sightings of lots of other animals. I will also be collecting feathers at each of the leks for continued genetic analysis which I hope to report more on here shortly. I will also get out at least one morning to trap birds for part of an ongoing research project on a population of grouse living along the US and Canada border between Saskatchewan and Montana. Lots of good stuff will be coming out of this research and I hope to be able to tell you more about this pretty soon too.

Although the management plan work will take me out of as much monitoring as I have been able to do in the past and my assistant Matt will get to do most of this work, each morning I get out will be that much more special when contrasted with the drudgery of planning and computer screens.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


I posted about this Humpback whale about a year ago but I recently was working through photos and wanted to share this series of breaching whale shots.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Richie Skane

Before I left for Antarctica last November I made a post about my late friend Richie Skane. In that post I described how a group of people who knew and loved Richie had petitioned to name a geographic feature at Cape Monaco after Richie and that there was now a Skane Nunatak on Cape Monaco. I had hoped to visit that area on my trip to get my own photos of Skane Nunatak and pay my respects to an old friend. Although we were in the vicinity I was unable to see the nunatak.

Then in January I received the following letter from Richie's brother in response to my post.

Dear John,

I don't know whether you want to call it fate or divine intervention, but sometimes things happen and we don't have a logical explanation for it.There is a picture of Richie on my desk and he looks out smiling everyday, the look is much like you describe on your website. But there was one particular day, three days before Christmas that the smile was different. It was if Richie were saying that there was something I hadn't done and for some reason I googled Richie's name, I don't know why, it just happened.

Maybe it was the quick blurb on googling yourself on a news station here in Boston, or just maybe it was Richie being Richie. Whatever the reason as I hit the enter key I was looking at Richie's name on the screen. I opened the first website and it was John Carlson's Prairie Ice site. At a quick glance I looked at John's picture and I thought it didn't look like Richie. It wasn't Richie, huh so there is another Richie Skane. Then I looked to the right and saw Richie's name and began to read the paragraph. The words started to jump out: carpenter's helper, Colorado, fun, fair person. It was Richie! Your description of Richie is excellent; you don't need a picture to really see him. Continuing the article there it was- the naming of a feature in Antarctica after Richie. I remembered at his service a number of people from the ice were speaking about Richie and the people on the ice that loved and respected him, the people who would miss him, and the people who felt they had lost family. I remember someone stating that they were going to try to get the USGS to name a feature after him. We all realized what an honor this was, but then as always time moves ever forward.

Time moves forward at a seemingly ever-changing pace, sometimes slowly and other times like a lightening bolt. We can get lost in the things that were and the things that are, dealing with love, loss and daily routine differently. Every now and then my sisters or I would check to see if anything had happened. Eventually as the months and years passed, our thoughts were of Richie and our memories of Richie and we forgot about the feature that might be named for him. I think we all thought that someone would contact us. But then we failed to realize that this is not about us. It is about Richie, his love of the ice and for all of those he worked with. It is about your relationships with Richie, that special bond developed on the ice. You were and all are all truly brothers and sisters in arms.

Richie let us know that it was time to check again, so that we would know about the feature named for him, so we could thank you. Thank you for all of your efforts, for the hard work and dedication you put into the Skane Nunatak. Its ironic that this was the first Christmas the whole family has been together to celebrate the holidays since Richie's death. Ironic that your website would find its way into our lives and eventually into our hearts. Copies of the information and your efforts were wrapped as gifts for my sisters and my father and addressed to them from Richie and from you guys. I can't tell you how grateful we are to you all for the great Christmas surprise we all received under the tree.

You mentioned Richie's eyes and it is true that eyes can tell a great deal about people. The story told in Richie's father's eyes when he read the information and saw the picture is something I hope you can see, or imagine. He has the picture and description of the Skane Nunatak hanging on his wall next to Richie's picture.

My family thanks you for the honor, the love and the respect you have shown Richie. The naming of a nunatak after him is so very special. I know he is smiling that smile as he watches from his summit. Reading Glenn Grant's blog is a humbling experience, to think that one person can be that much a part of people's lives. To think of how much he meant to all of you. To see him again on the ice and around the United States carried in the hearts of so many. I have some pictures of Richie that you might enjoy; one in particular shows him on the ice with some people starring out at the world around him. It is almost as if he were sitting up on his nunatak staring out at all of us. There is another picture that a friend took of Richie at the family cottage, he has that look on his face, that smile and those eyes. The eyes that directed us to the website and to his friends, who still see him on the ice. Thank you.

Sincerely, George Skane

Although I was not in on the effort to name a geographic feature for Richie (I found out about it after the petition had been submitted to USGS), I am glad that I was able to let his family know about it. The passage where George described how my blog had let to Christmas gifts for his family and in particular Richie's father (the italics are mine) made the creation of this blog worthwhile even for just that one post. Even though George said that my description of Richie didn't need any photos here are few that George sent me so you can see the man I wrote about.

Ships that pass in the ice.

While looking through blogs listed in the Nature Blog Network I found this interesting post from Laura (scroll down to the last photo) describing her November 2007 trip to Antarctica.

The photo she posted is of the National Geographic Endeavour, the ship I was on in November. I remember passing them in the ice and here is a photo of her ship from my view. For the record, we did wave and I would have to argue her claim that her ship was the better ship.

non illegitimi carborundum est

What can I say. It's been one of those weeks and this mock Latin phrase is my motto for today.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lunar Eclipse

Thanks to Claire at The House and other Arctic Musings I found out there will be a total lunar eclipse tomorrow (Wednesday) night. Here is a NASA link for more information based on your time zone. The graphic is from the NASA site for Mountain Standard Time. The weather forecast for Fort Peck looks pretty good for tomorrow night with partly cloudy skies.

Bohemian Waxwings

Yesterday the Bohemian Waxwings descended on our back yard again. We have two crabapple trees in our backyard. Both produce a large number of apples but one apparently produces much better tasting apples. The tree producing the good apples is older and is loosing a few limbs. The birds will eat all the apples off this tree and the ones that have fallen on the ground before they will begin eating apples from the other tree. As we get latter in the spring the apples left on the not-so-good tree become more appealing as other source of fruit disappear. We usually get large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings about three or four times a month from November through February (maybe more as I am not around during the weekdays) to work over the remaining fruit and have a drink or quick bath.
Yesterday I estimated there were about 600 individuals either eating on the dried apples in our backyard or waiting in the neighbors cottonwood tree.

This species is quite common in the Fort Peck area during the winter with thousands feeding on Russian Olive and ornamental fruit trees in town and along the Missouri River. It may even breed in the northwestern part of the state. Early records, which have been carried forward into recent range maps and accounts, suggested that this species was an occasional breeder but recent reviews of these records show that no nests were ever actually found and the supposition of breeding in Montana was based on a lot of conjecture and little fact. They do nest not that much farther north into Canada but for now there is no hard evidence of this species breeding in the state.
First, one side.
then the other.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


"Ooooh" I said as I was reading Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of all Ages. I had opened the book to the Stegosaurus account and my eyes were drawn to a caption for an illustration depicting a Stegosaurus thrashing at a Tyrannosaur type meat eating dinosaur with it's spiked tail. The caption stated "The thagomizer of Stegosaurus provided a powerful defense...."

I thought "that's a curious word - thagomizer. I wonder where that came from?"

A little searching through the text found that it indeed was a curious word with an even more interesting etymology. It turns out that the Thagomizer was named after the late Thag Simmons. Who was Thag Simmons? It appears that, according to a good source, Thag Simmons was an unfortunate pre-historic human who first discovered the dangers of a Stegosaurus tail first hand. OK you say, now this is getting weird. Everyone knows that dinosaurs and any sort of pre-historic human did not exist during the same time! Would it help if I told you my source was Gary Larson?

Apparently paleontologist Ken Carpenter thought the thagomizer was a good name for the business end of the Stegosaurus tail and he used the term in a 1993 presentation in which he described the most complete Stegosaurus ever found. However, Ken may have originally been joking a bit. He did not use thagomizer to describe the Stegosaurus tail in a subsequent paper (Carpenter 1998) describing what was probably the same specimen but the book states that it is now accepted scientific nomenclature.

Here is the cartoon which I found at the Wikipedia site that describes the thagomizer and it's origins a bit more. This was too good to pass up.

So is the Dinosaur encyclopedia. I bought it for my son Benton's fifth birthday and he loves it (thanks to Darren at Tetrapod Zoology). I really like it too. It has great illustrations and I look forward to reading more, particularly on the Avialians (of course).

Carpenter, Ken. 1998. Amor of Stegosaurus stenops, and the taphonomic history of a new speciment from Garden Park, Colorado. Modern Geology 23:127-144.

"Now this end is called the thagomizer, after the late Thag Simmons."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some new favorites

Earlier this month Trixie at Trixie's View gave me a nice compliment and listed PrairieIce as one of the blogs that "makes her day". Thanks Trixie. I commented to Trixie that the feeling is mutual and I enjoy reading about her life in Alaska - bears, Boreal Chickadees, a biathlete, and a beginning reader to name a few subjects I enjoy from Trixie. Check out her recent post about her family training program for her daughter's biathlon competitions. I like the indoor firing range Trixie.

This was pretty good timing as it gave me a bit of a nudge to link to a few blogs that I have recently discovered or posts I particularly enjoyed that I have been meaning to pass along.

First is a post from Pohanginapete with stunning photos of New Zealand's Blue Duck or Whio. One of my favorite groups of birds in the world are the ducks that inhabit fast moving waters - the Harlequin Duck in North America, the aptly named Torrent Duck in South America, and the Blue Duck of New Zealand. I have yet to see the Whio but this is pretty close to being there. Pete always has very well crafted posts with great stories and photos.

This is one of my photos of a Torrent Duck in Torres Del Paine NP,
Chile in November 2007

Next is a new blog that I found via Fretmarks and Querencia (again). Talking Pictures is another blog in the same vein as Pohanginapete, well done posts with great photography and thoughtful essays. I really like it and have added a link to my sidebar. Natasha vicariously feeds my traveling and birding wishes for India.

Another blog that I have somehow failed to add to my sidebar until now is Rebecca O'Conner's Operations Desert Dove. This is, directly from Rebecca, a falconry blog... and more. Much more.

Pete at Midway is next on my list. I discovered Pete's work via a link at Trixie's View and I have been able to get my seabird fix while in Montana via Pete's photos and stories of working with albatrosses, tropicbirds, and petrels. Check out the photos of the sea turtles here.

I also like the irreverent Martin and George Bristow's Secret Freezer. Martin always provides a great perspective on birding and more importantly birders. Martin never fails to make me laugh particularly when he hits close to home like here:

I actually think the birds can be a bit boring on a blog. Does anyone care how many gannets I saw today?* Even me? Really what I'd like to do is to fill it up with petty libels, anecdotes, woodpecker news**, Heroes of the Birding Revolution etc. Can't manage that at the moment, hence the disappointing lack of peripherals.

Thanks Martin and I agree. I promise to try to do less of the "what I saw today or what I took a photo of today" posts but they are so much easier than actually writing a decent post. I will try though.

Fridays usually mean that John Betham at A D.C. Birding Blog has his Loose Feathers roundup posted. I look forward to Fridays just to see what interesting bird related links John has gathered from the internet via blogs, the news, and other sources (I even made his blog roundup once!).

My last new link to mention is Birdchick. Sharon is probably best described as a bird ambassador. Her enthusiasm for birds is contagious even via the internet and I always enjoy seeing what she is up to. Anyone who would organize an event called "Birds and Beers" at a local pub is alright in my book. Hey Sharon, want to come to Montana and speak at our local bird festival one of these years?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Rough-legged Hawk

One of the most common raptors wintering in Montana is the Rough-legged Hawk. They are often found perched on telephone poles in sagebrush habitats or perched in the small branches of trees. Even at a distance it is easy to identify this hawk by two behaviors not exhibited by other raptor species of this size in Montana in the winter. The first is the habit of perching on small branches as noted above. No other hawk of this size will perch at the ends of small branches like this. The other is their habit of hovering while searching for prey. Again, they are the only large raptor found in MT that will hover like this. Here are a few photos of a Rough-legged Hawks from Montana. In a few months they will be heading north to breed.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

More Montana Signs

Here are some more Montana signs. Glad you liked the first bunch Trixie! I have a bunch more on film and I hope to get them scanned one of these days.

Billings, MT 2006
Great Falls, MT 2006
Great Falls, MT 2006

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Raptors Across Montana

I returned yesterday from a two day training in Butte, MT, an eight hour trip (one way) from Fort Peck. Although it is a long drive, it was a nice, albeit fast, traverse of the state with a good deal of windshield birding. On Tuesday when I woke up, it was -25 degrees outside without the windchill and after a day of blizzard like conditions on Monday, attending the training was in question. After consulting the weather reports and road conditions on the web I decided that I would go. It turned out to be a rather uneventful drive for winter in Montana as far as road conditions and weather go. The most obvious birds I found during my drive were raptors and there were lots of them along the way (probably because it is tough to observe smaller birds while traveling down the interstate, much less identify them). Rough-legged Hawks were the most widespread bird I found from one end of the state to the other. I probably observed between 50 and 80 individuals each way. Bald Eagles were the next most common and widespread bird I observed, from the more traditional habitats along the Yellowstone River to perched on small buttes and feeding on roadkill. Ravens and Black-billed Magpies were pretty common too but only west of Billings. Black-billed Magpies are still much less common in the eastern part of the state after a precipitous decline that occured about the time that West Nile Virus came through here and I suspect that much of the population around Fort Peck was wiped out at that time. Horned Larks were common in scattered flocks along the highways north and east of Billings. The most species I observed the most individuals of was the Canada Goose, with many large flocks wintering along the Yellowstone River from Billings to Livingston. I saw one haystack near Reed Point along the Yellowstone River that was covered with Wild Turkeys like a wildebeast carcass covered with vultures. Other raptors observed along the way included two Merlins in Billings, a number or Red-tailed Hawks along the Yellowstone, two American Kestrels, and a Northern Harrier.

This photo depicts a typical scene in Eastern Montana this time of year. Although this happens to be a Bald Eagle, more often it is a Golden Eagle perched on these knobs.

This immature Golden Eagle was soaring in the updraft at the edge of a small hill along the highway.

This adult Bald Eagle was perched in an old Ponderosa Pine along the highway. I appeared to have just finished a dinner on the roadkill Mule Deer in the ditch on the opposite side of the road.