Great Gray Owl

by Dave Hanks

We were in Yellowstone Park approaching the Canyon intersection, when I said to my wife: “You know what would make this a really great trip? – finding a Great Gray Owl.” We turned south and had traveled less than a half mile when my eye caught what looked like a knob on the end of a stick. My heart leaped and I said: “There’s one!” Sure enough, it was an owl, not just one but two! I started taking pictures at a great distance by stalking – moving up six feet, stopping, shooting, and moving again. I took off each of my extension lens as I got closer and closer. I got quite close, and one seemed content to just sit and watch me. Luckily he was low down, on a bare branch in a Lodgepole Pine.

The GREAT GRAY OWL is not the heaviest owl, but it is the biggest in volume. Its head is smooth (lacking the ear tuffs that identify the Great Horned Owl) and it has huge, heavily ringed facial disks that make its eyes look smaller than they are. These disks are tremendous aids in channeling sounds to the ears. The ears are to the sides of the eyes and concealed by feathers. Its hearing is acute. A mouse or vole, running underneath the snow, can be heard and pinpointed at a surprising distance. With both excellent vision and hearing, this bird is adept at nighttime, dawn, or dusk hunting.

Boreal forests and wooded bogs of the far north are this species preferred habitats. Although not common further south, they may also be found in mountainous, coniferous forests where they hunt the forest clearings. Their call is a series of deep, resonant “whoo’s”.

Of all the raptors, owls stir my senses the most. The Great Gray Owl is not easy to come upon and an observation, especially a photographic session, is a very special event.

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Watching me as well as scanning for voles

Eurasian Collared Dove – An Immigrant Comes to Burley

by Dave Hanks

A rare bird report has been on IBLE (Idaho birders website) all this spring (2007). This same bird was described to me, in a telephone conversation, by a resident of southeast Burley. But “lo and behold”, the species had appeared in our yard. In fact a pair of Collared Doves has favored us with their presence since early spring. I assume that they must have a nest here. We have many and a great variety of trees. This species likes yards and conifers to nest in.

It is 13 inches long with a sandy gray body. The name is the result of a distinctive half collar on the back of its neck. A bit of white can be seen in their tail when taking flight. They are somewhat bigger than the Mourning Dove (which it associates with in our yard) and looks similar to the Ringed Turtle Dove (which it will hybridize with). A growling three note “Koo-KOO-kook” call is made while in flight. Both sexes look alike, and they will try to breed throughout the entire year. The producing of several broods annually has led to their rapid increase.

It’s an old world species that originated in India, spread across Europe, and was introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s. The USA population is mainly in Florida but spreading. This bird has been tamed, and our population is the result of caged birds being released into the wild. When first appearing in England in 1963, it was protected and a boy was fined for shooting one. Protection was later raised, as the bird was becoming a pest – much like the European Starling that haunts farm yards in our area.

We were most surprised to look out our front window and suddenly realize that a new species, and an uncommon one at that, was utilizing our yard.

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A Eurasian Collared Dove making use of bird seed strewn on our lawn

The Yellow-Breasted Chat is well named

by Dave Hanks

Never has a bird lived up to its name so well. If one is in the surrounding vegetation, you will hear a most unmistakable series of calls. They range from chattering clucks, rattles, clear whistles, and squawks. Their repertoire is wide, loud, and often harsh but definitely not dull. The Chat is secretive and lives in dense thickets and brush. However, once you are familiar with its calls you’ll know, without a doubt, that a chat is in the vicinity.

The Chat is listed as our largest warbler (7 ½”), but recent DNA tests have caused this classification to be disputed. However, like most warblers, yellow is a basic color. Another interesting DNA study has shown that up to a third of the chicks in a nest have been sired by a male other than the female’s mate.

The Chat’s bright yellow chest is very noticeable, and as it calls, its yellow throat puffs out as if it had a double chin. When the sun comes up to warm the cool morning air, the male will sit on a top branch solarizing and singing his heart out to greet the day and to proclaim his territory.

This bird made an indelible impression on me when I first became acquainted with it. The perky, vocal renditions were impressive to say the least, but to photograph a Chat was something else again. We have tried several times to connect with this reclusive fellow, only to be frustrated and forced to just listen to his amazing calls. Knowing that the Harrington Fork of Rock Creek in Twin Falls County is chat habitat, we tried once again on an early May morning. Luck was with us this time. My wife spotted one singing from a tangle of shrubs, and I set up our blind on the trail above that tangle. Patient waiting paid off. One perched close by and sang and sang and sang.

Sadly the species is in trouble because of decreasing habitat.

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Singing and solarizing

American Alligator: The Ultimate Bass Voice

By Dave Hanks

While walking beside a salt water marsh in Florida, I was startled by a loud, deep, resonate roar. It sounded much like an upset dairy bull, but there were no bovines anywhere near. Much to my surprise, it came from a clump of vegetation that held a large lizard-like animal – the American Alligator. Although startled, I was very glad that he had announced his presence.

This large reptile grows at the rate of a foot a year and can reach 28 feet and 450 to 500 lbs. Its tail is half its body weight and is very powerful. A swat from it could cause serious problems. Elevated eyes allow it to submerge and yet scan the surrounding area. Motionless in the water, it can be mistaken for a log. It can also be well camouflaged as it lies along a path in the available vegetation.

The Beaver is the master engineer of our fresh water habitat, but the Alligator fills the same niche in the swamp – making water holes that are also utilized by other species. It digs a hole with an opening below the water line, but then sloping upward to a dry den. The Alligator can always seek refuge here.

Mating takes place in April or May. The female will lay up to 60 eggs in a heap of mud and vegetation, and the heat generated by the sun incubates the eggs. This “best” of reptile mothers rips open the nest when the hatchlings “peep” and then carries each one to the safety of the gator hole.

Once endangered, this species has made a remarkable recovery. The increase in Alligator farms, for their hides, has helped bring them back from the brink.

Whenever we are in coastal Texas, we seem to stumble upon these animals on a somewhat regular basis.

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Resting in the morning sunlight

There is something I hold dear

There is something that I hold dear
It’s a roomy black matron that I revere

Rugged, but feminine is this beast
Extremely adaptable, to say the least

It’s the Angus cow of much renown
There is no equal to be found

She’s maternal and fertile, and easy to calve
A quality that is certainly good to have

Her calves are vigorous and jump to their feet And when fed-out, yield high quality meat
She’s easy to care for with maintenance minimal
And contrary to belief, she is very gentle

On what she is fed I’ve seen other types try
Their competition lags – Of that I don’t lie

But this cow, comes through with great zeal
Does it with ease and preserves eye-appeal

If you ask why it’s Angus I feed
It’s basically the cow – She’s the strength of the breed!

(Recalled from the years when I bred cattle in Montana)

 

The Bobcat – A Surprise in the Grass

My wife and I have often mused about how one of us could say: “I wish we would see a ——-.” Often that animal would suddenly appear around the next corner. Such was the case one California evening. We were hiking and scouring the area for animals. I made the comment: “I wish we would see a Mountain Lion” and my wife said: “Well, there’s one”. It was a cat all right, but not a lion. It was a Bobcat hunkered down in the grass, waiting for us to pass it by. It must have felt hidden, because it allowed me to stalk quite close.

Lynx rufus is the size of a raccoon and looks like an overgrown house cat – except for the ear tufts and bobbed tail. Its color is usually a yellowish-brown spotted with black, gray, and white. While not as big as its cousin the Lynx, it is more tenacious. It is strong for its size and will attack larger animals. However, most of its prey consists of ground birds and small mammals. These are caught by careful stalking or by ambush. Rabbits and hares are especially preferred. The availability of prey species dictates its range, which can be anywhere between 5 and 50 square miles.

Bobcats will den in dense thickets, hollow logs, or in trees. They have a gestation of 50 to 60 days and usually give birth to two litters a year. Two kittens per birth is average.

It is an excellent tree climber and climbs to escape danger. If you come upon Bobcat tracks, note that the hind print will partially cover the fore print. Like all wild American felines, it is solitary, nocturnal, and secretive. We were very lucky to see one.

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Trying to hide in tall grass

Turkey Vultures: Environmental Clean-up Crew

When out in the sage, mountains, grasslands, or other wild places; you may notice large birds circling far overhead. Most folks would probably think that they were seeing some form of hawk. But the more likely scenario is that a most important scavenger is riding the thermals – the Turkey Vulture – a bird that feeds mainly on carrion and refuse.

This is a large bird (27”), larger even than our Red-Tailed Hawk. High in the air or at a distance, it has somewhat of a resemblance to an eagle. It has a black body, white beak, and a fiery red head. When in flight it holds its wings upward in a shallow V, with the wing-tip feathers spread like fingers. When in the air, the silvery wing under-sides are visible. Vultures roost in large trees and even on tall structures. Because they depend on riding thermals, they don’t leave their roost until the sun has heated the air.

The red head is devoid of feathers. This is a sanitation adaptation. It must stick its head into rotting carcasses and the baldness prevents “goo” from accumulating on the feathers. The suns rays are then able to shine on the skin, playing a disinfecting role. Also, their beak is not strong enough to tear open the hide. They must wait for the animal to rot or another scavenger to rip it open. However, their tongue is “rasp-like” and this aids in removing bits of flesh from inside the carcass.

Vultures are widespread over our continent, and though many people would find these birds to be ugly and possibly disgusting, they have an extremely vital niche. They rid the countryside of dead animals, thus, keeping the environment clean.

While not my favorite bird, I still find this species most interesting and easy to appreciate.

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Early morning & waiting for a thermal before lifting off

Orioles are “Sugar Daddies”

Spring and early summer are exciting times at our house. This excitement is caused by the arrival of BULLOCK’S ORIOLES. They nest in our yard. We are also excited by the Western Tanagers that stop-over, while waiting for more favorable conditions in their mountain-summering areas. We have developed a very “bird friendly” yard, but there is an added attraction that satisfies both of these species “sweet-tooth.” We place quart fruit jars, inverted on baby chick watering dishes, upon platforms. These platforms are mounted on pipes and each has a “slinky” (toy) hanging and encasing the pipe. We have found this to be the most effective method to keep squirrels away from the feed. The jars are full of sugar-water, mixed at a ratio of 6 parts water to 1 of sugar or even sweeter. It is readily accepted. Two quarts of this solution is consumed every day when the baby orioles have fledged.

We have as many as three pair of orioles building their hanging nests in our yard and raising their broods. As the young fledge, the yard comes alive with harsh calls, and orioles are everywhere you look. This orange, black, and white bird is a western version of the Baltimore Oriole and is actually a member of the Blackbird family. It is most definitely a “heart-stopper!”

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BULLOCK’S ORIOLE at sugar-water feeder

CARDINAL COUSIN

PYRRHULOXIA (pie-rue-lox-ia) is a bird that looks as if its throat has been cut and the result is spread over its head, face, belly, legs, and tail. It is a species found in the thorny brush and mesquite lands of our south-west. This bird will feed in low shrubbery or along the ground where they can utilize the shadows. If you are well hidden, you can get quite close. It is sometimes confused with the female Cardinal but its short, thick, curved beak is diagnostic. A beak that allows them to utilize hard shelled food items.

PYRRHULOXIAS are eight and three-quarter inches long with a soft gray and red coloration scheme that makes a very pleasing contrast. Their song is a liquid whistle.

Since first seeing this species, it took on a high priority on our photography “must list”. During winter months, when we have been in the southern climes, we have worked to lure it to our hastily put up feeding stations. This specimen was in Catalina State Park – north of Tucson, Arizona.

If you visit Arizona or other surrounding states, look for this species. Seeing one will brighten your day!

The photo is of one feeding on black sunflower seeds scattered on the ground.
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Nutcracker & Pine: A healthy relationship

CLARK’S NUTCRACKER has a symbiotic relationship with White Bark Pine, or in our mountains – Limber Pine. These two, high-mountain tree species can be identified by their needle bunches, which come in groups of five. There are many Limber Pine trees at Lake Cleveland. A symbiotic relationship is one in which both species benefit from each other. The nutcracker is adept at opening the cones of these two trees. The nuts from these cones are the main staple of the bird’s diet. The bird not only benefits from the food source, but the trees benefit by having their seeds spread. The tree populations are re-generated from seeds hidden in the ground and forgotten. Wherever you find these trees, you will also usually find this bird.

This is a big (12” to 13”) gray bird. It is trimmed with black wings, a white bottom, and white in the trailing wing edges. It’s voice is a loud, nasal “kra-ah-ah”. As a member of the Jay family, it (like all Jays) is raucous and opportunistic. They will readily come to a campsite that provides food. Seeds, suet, peanuts, bread are attractants that are readily accepted.

Nutcrackers lay three eggs and incubate them for 18 days. The young will fledge in three to four weeks. The bird is blessed with a pouch under the base of the tongue – just behind the lower beak. It can gather up a large quantity of seeds to either feed the babies or to store for a later date.

It is “neat” to arrive in the high mountains and to hear this bird, as it flies its circuit, making the morning air ring with it’s resounding calls.

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