Saturday, February 18, 2012

Snow Day Friday

No this isn't a post about the weather. That title would be "No Snow Winter" this year. This is a post about birds and more specifically 38 birds of a particular species. And to be more precise this post is about this particular Friday, a day that I had hoped to make happen since late December.
This day had it's genesis in December when I began to see reports of large numbers of Snowy Owls from across the country and continued after a post Christmas road trip turned up seven owls in an area near Fort Peck where I really didn't expect to see that many. What really cemented the idea though were continued reports from my friends in Glasgow that went something like "we saw eight along the highway the other day" or "I saw three last night just north of the house."
My ideas was to spend a day looking to find as many Snowy Owls as I could and when the boys had Thursday and Friday off of school and I had no "need to get done" projects or "need to attend" meetings on my work calendar, the time was right to head north.
I enlisted my Dad to join me in my quest and Thursday night we planned our route. We would head north from Fort Peck to Glasgow and continue north until we could see Canada and then head west along the border, then turn south and wind up in the little town of Hinsdale on Highway 2. We would then head east on Highway 2 back to Glasgow and return to Fort Peck via the backroads to find some owls had been hanging out there all winter. In addition to the reports from my friends, fellow Montana blogger Mona at Montanagirl has been posting a number of great photos of a number of Snowy Owls from the area around Hinsdale so we figured this route would allow us to find those birds as well.

Charles Carlson photo

The day turned out to exceed our expectations. I had originally thought that if I found 20 owls I would be happy. We hit that number before we were halfway through our route. At one point we had observed 16 owls in about 18 miles.

Most of the owls were perched on poles or signposts.

Charles Carlson photo

But some were in trees.

Charles Carlson photo

This one landed in a field after he flushed from a fencepost on the side of the road. I am sure that if there were many sitting on the ground along our route we missed a lot of birds given how well the blend in with their surroundings when they are not exposed on a perch.

I got his photo just as he was landing.

And this one as he was flying across the field.

Charles Carlson photo

Charles Carlson photo

Most of our east to west portion of the route was barren of owls and I am sure, given the knowledge of where we found the birds, that we could have probably found at least 20 more owls that day had we chosen a different route to maximize the habitat that we found the birds in. We also found an assortment of typical winter birds for the area including Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, Golden Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, and a Prairie Falcon.

Charles Carlson photo

On Saturday, the boys and I headed across Fort Peck dam after a walk along the Missouri River. We were looking for another owl reported on Friday perched on the lightposts that line the top of the dam (what would have been our 39th owl on Friday). We found him right where he had been reported the day before and I pulled off the side of the road to show the boys and get a photo or two.
Apparently I hadn't pulled off the road quite far enough and just about that time a Montana Highway Patrol officer went past, then flipped his lights on and turned around and pulled onto the shoulder of the road in front of me and nearly right under the owl. As he got out of the car I expected the owl to bolt, but here merely looked down at the officer as he got out of the car and walked back to the van. He asked if I was taking photos and I pointed over his shoulder to the owl now looking right at him. He turned and looked and was a bit surprised to see the owl looking back at him. He mentioned to me that he had observed a number of them this winter and wondered why that was so I was able to explain to him about the lemming population and the increase in owl productivity. He explained to me that he would like me to pull further off the road next time and got back into his car and headed down the road.

This is the owl looking down at the officer. The owl stayed there the whole time and the patrolman walked back and forth to his patrol car with my license and registration and he was still sitting there when I decided to leave a short while later (after pulling further off the road). I suspect that this particular owl had had a few cars stop to look at him this winter.
Friday turned out to be the best day I had spent in quite a while. I got to spend a nice day birding with my Dad, something I don't get to do often enough these days and Mom made pasties for dinner that night. And I got to see 38 different Snowy Owls in one day. Can't beat that.


Anonymous said...

I love the pics John, thank you, and congrats on an epic day with your sons. When I see snowies here in eastern Wa (Columbia Basin), I am on the high alert for gyrfalcons and more often than not they appear too. Does it work that way in MT?

Camera Trap Codger said...

Wow, I am "blowed over" by those pale beauties.

John Carlson said...

Most winters we also have a few gyrs around, but there have been no observations this winter. I suspect that the gyrfalcon dynamics are somewhat connected with the owls in that they both inhabit that same landscape, but gyrs would be more dependent on ptarmigan dynamics rather than lemming dynamics.