Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Pt. Mouillee Snowy Owls! - 24 Dec 2013

Skies were finally clear for the first time in nearly a week but temps were now in the teens. This would not dissuade me from looking for a pair of Snowy Owls that were reported this past weekend during the Rockwood, MI Christmas Bird Count.

The Snowy Owl invasion of 2013 continues to build in the Great Lakes Region with more reports of birds coming in every day.  Today alone would include new sightings of birds from Jackson, Genesee and Ingham Counties.  Willow Run Airport in Romulus has up to 4 Snowy Owls being reported! The map at left was printed out yesterday, and needs to be updated already to include another dozen birds reported in this area alone.

I parked at Mouillee Creek and unloaded the bike. Bundled head to toe I began to ride the Middle Causeway east toward Lake Erie and Cell 3, hoping to spot at least one Snowy Owl.  The dikes were frozen so riding was smooth, but a biting wind made the eyes water and breathing difficult.  I spotted a couple of bikes ahead of me, but they appeared to belong to a couple of hunters / trappers who were wading into the Lautenschlager Unit with guns.

As I rode past them I spotted the first Snowy Owl of the day taking off from the grass somewhere near the Middle Causeway and heading off into the Humphries Unit. The sun was rising low over the horizon ahead of me but I managed a few long-distance flight shots as the bird floated over the ice and landed atop a muskrat den far out in the middle of the unit.  Though the distance was great I managed a keeper digiscoped image or two for record.

No sooner had I gotten back on the bike and started riding did a second bird take off from the same location of the Middle Causeway.  This bird circled a couple of times before disappearing toward the Banana Unit.  Again, I was able to grab a few long-distance flight shots before it was gone.

Suspecting that these were the same two birds found by Don Sherwood last Saturday on Labo Rd. I was shocked when a third bird suddenly flew from the ditch along the causeway toward the middle of the Humphries Unit. Flying low over the ice, and much closer this time, I was able to grab some better flight shots before it landed about 200 feet from shore.

With my fingers now starting to numb from the cold I took some digiscoped images of the bird as it sat on the ice and considered my presence.

As soon as picked up the bike to continue riding the bird took off and flew back toward the Lautenschlager Unit where it landed on the water flow-control platform in the SE corner.  With the sun at my back I now had much better lighting to photograph the bird, so I slowly walked back toward the bird w/ the scope and digiscoping camera at the ready.

I digiscoped the bird from about 200' away, then moved to within about 100' for better shots.  The bird rested quietly and scanned it surrounding, stopping only momentarily to monitor my position.

By now I was fumbling w/ the shutter release on the camera. My fingers were frozen and I couldn't feel the tips against the shutter.  Plus, the wind was buffeting me and the scope backpack, which acted like a sail. At one point I grabbed some photos of the bird using the D7100 and 300/2.8 VRII and heard the scope / tripod crash to the ground next to me.  Undaunted, the bird continued to scan its surroundings.

Having taken all the photos I felt I needed, I could have approached even closer with the hopes of getting some flight shots.  But I was concerned about the bird having to expend too much energy flying away from me, so I backed off slowly and let it be.  By the time I got back to the bike farther down the causeway the bird took off on its own, flying a short distance to the middle of the dike separating Lautenschlager and Bloody Run Units.  I wasn't going to pursue it. Instead I continued on toward the Banana Unit.

I would spot a pair of Northern Harriers along the Middle Causeway next to the Vermet Unit, but lighting was bad enough to not bother trying to photograph them.  Cell 4 was partially open at the mouth to Lake Erie, but only a few scaup were present in the open water.  Cell 3 was completely frozen, and there was no hope for relocating the Western Sandpiper that Karl Overman reported last Saturday (hopefully the bird survived long enough to find a warm-water discharge somewhere farther south).  I circled Cell 3 and found Lake Erie frozen about a quarter mile out from shore.  There was nothing worth stopping for, so I continued on bike back toward the Middle Causeway and the car.

The wind was now blowing in my face, so biking was slow.  I had to walk several times as I didn't have the strength to fight the cold and wind.  I relocated one Snowy Owl (the first one) on the Muskrat mound, but didn't see the other two.  My attention was now directed at a flock of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks that appeared to my left.  The foraging flock moved slowly ahead of me, while a single Snow Bunting lagged far enough behind to permit some nice photos from the bike.

When I finally reached the car I drove along Roberts Rd. and Reaume Rd. to look for raptors.  As I returned from a loop of the Antennae Farm / Haggerman Rd. I spotted a large raptor hovering just over the landfill.  A Rough-legged Hawk!  I could only manage some silhouette shots as a sudden snow squall appeared and I was shooting directly into the sun. Still, it was nice to see a Roughie show up (finally) in these parts.  Quite satisfied, I headed home to warm up.


Cathy Carroll said...

Jerry, such a terrific blog entry. Oh, my gosh what a Snowy owl and photo extravaganza! Snow Buntings pretty nice, too.

"Dr. Bob" said...

You are so totally and wonderfully nuts! What an experience! And, the pics ... great!!!

Ad a "wimp" now, I will never have a darn near religious experience like this, but I could almost "feel" it thru your blog!

Thanks for sharing!!!

Clare Johnson said...

Jerry, Thank you for your Blog and Wonderful Photos. Thank you for braving the cold and wind....and for sharing with us. Your efforts are much appreciated!
Clare Johnson

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