Saturday, December 14, 2013

Snowy Owl vs. Raven - 12 Dec 2013

These poor guys just can't catch a break.  During this 'irruption' year of Snowy Owls to the northern and eastern US Snowy Owls are appearing in unprecedented numbers and locations. Unfortunately  we are hearing stories of nearly-starved and starved birds, harassment by Peregrine Falcons, photographers, and shootings by port authorities at airports.  It just doesn't seem fair for such a majestic creature.  And then, I get to witness the harassment myself. Poor Hedwig...

My last day of day at work for the year was yesterday, so I packed my gear and headed for Michigan's Upper Peninsula to do some winter birding. Leaving the house at 4:30 am I had hoped to get to the Mackinac Bridge early enough to spend the day driving the Soo area roads before heading to Whitefish Point the following morning.

Forecasts called for clear skies and frigid temps for the next two days, so I was surprised (not) to be driving through snow squalls the entire trip north.  But I arrived at Hartwick Pines State Park just as the skies cleared and decided to look for Evening Grosbeaks.  The visitor center was still closed, so I wandered around back to the feeders and spent twenty minutes trying to call in some Evening Grosbeaks using the Nat Geo app on my iPhone. Though they wouldn't show up I did attract a flock of Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Temps were near zero, so my fingers were frozen and unable to handle a digiscoping camera, so I headed back to the car.  I did manage a few Blue Jay pics using the D7100/300 2.8 VRII/SB-80 Flash/Better Beamer setup before leaving.

Snow showers followed me the entire trip to the bridge, including a few white-outs, but I made it across the Mighty Mac despite high-wind advisories.  Luck changed on the other side when skies cleared.  By 11 am I was reaching the Rudyard area with clear skies, so I started scanning the treetops looking for a possible Snowy Owl. I had just crossed M-48 along I-75 N when I spotted a pair of hovering Common Ravens to my left. Score!

A Snowy Owl was perched atop a spruce along the I-75 S  roadside and was being harassed by a pair of Ravens that were apparently unhappy with the bird's presence.  Traffic was light enough so I pulled into the center median and attempted to capture some images through the car window.  The Ravens swooped several times at the hissing Snowy Owl before finally knocking her(?) off her perch and forcing her to fly to the ground at the base of the trees.

The owl disappeared below my field of view (from inside the car), so I grabbed the camera and hiked across the median to the southbound side of the expressway.  The Snowy Owl was sitting in the snow at the base of the trees and following the Ravens with its eyes.  I peered over the roadside and grabbed a few photos of it before the Ravens resumed their attack.

She then took off for the trees farther south. A white bird against the dark trees is a nightmare for most cameras in terms of exposure, but the D7100 did a nice job with exposure.  Shooting RAW is always the way to go in these settings because the converting software allows a great deal of correction to be applied to the images, which are typically washed-out. Exposure, highlights, shadows and temperature can be corrected easily to recover images that would have been lost had I shot JPG.

Back atop the spruce trees one of the Ravens resumed its attack, hawking the hapless Snowy before she had to take off back to the north and to another tree momentarily before finally flying off toward Hantz Rd. to the west.

I headed back to the car and took the Rudyard exit to Hantz Rd., where I slowly drove south looking for anything birdy to photograph.  Dead quiet. But driving across M-48 toward Centerline Rd. I spotted the Snowy Owl now quietly sitting on a pole next to the highway.  Pulling over, I decided that it was a good opportunity to digiscope it from the ditch under the bridge.

Hiking down the side of the road and crossing a cattail ditch I found a small stand of trees to shield me from the wind and bitter cold.  I managed to get some keeper digiscoped images from about 150' away while the Snowy Owl quietly rested and scanned its surroundings.  I was happy that it paid no attention to me, and that I was able to get my photos from a safe distance and leave the area w/o flushing the bird.

But walked into some exploding cattails on the way back to the car and immediately regretted my decision to wear fleece.  I was covered head-to-to in cattail down! Looking like a baby Snowy Owl myself, I would spend the rest of the day with a roll of duct tape trying to get the fluff off my pants, jacket and cap. But totally worth it!!!

Given the amount of barring on the back, back of head, and chest (no bib) I'm suspecting a first-year female Snowy Owl in the images shown in this post.  A search of 'sexing and aging of Snowy Owls' put me onto Bertie Josephson's article in Journal of Field Ornithology (1980) and this summary key:

The lack of a white bib indicates a 1st year individual and amount of barring suggests female.

Additional discussion regarding aging/sexing of Snowy Owls can be found at the Cornell site.


Aging and Sexing Snowy Owls

Bertie Josephson
Journal of Field Ornithology
Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1980), pp. 149-160
Published by: Association of Field Ornithologists
Article Stable URL:

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