bearriver Blog

Barn Owl Bonanza!

Barn owl in flight

Thursday, January 25, 2013

Boy, oh boy are the Barn owls out in force this winter...and while that is a great thing for birders and photographers like many of us, it is not necessarily a good thing for the owls.

First - lets talk about the good.  It is so thrilling to see these soul-stirring silent hunters up close.  Right now - with conditions as they are - is an amazing time to see them hunt and glide above the marshes around the Refuge Auto Loop.  They dive from signs and building-tops -  they bullet up from roads and rushes - and they stare sarcastically from the snow saying, "I'm not cold - are you?" 

Over the past weeks - several Barn owls have been seen on and around the Refuge rather consistently - and my own two forays around the loop in the past week have yielded sightings of 7 Barn owls both times! I've seen them pounce on prey or search the snow for more.

Now - for one of the unfortunate reasons we are seeing so many and getting such a good glimpse of them this winter.  They are hungry and possibly starving in the harsh conditions this year.

Barn owls - and owls in general - had a rather good season last winter - with mild temperatures and a plentiful poplulation of rodents for a food source.  The cold temps, thicker snow and now - ice on topf of the snow - have really changed those conditions this winter.  Rodent populations are down - or they are much harder to get to.  With deep snows or hard, ice-covered drifts that the owls cannot puch through, owls resort to hunting along roads and - due to their low flying and camoflauged colors, often get hit by cars during harsh winters.  Also - to make up for hard hunting conditions and less food - especially coming into the breeding season or having to feed young - some owls resort to hunting in the daytime much more than they would normally.  Again - this makes it great owl viewing, but unfortunately - it is very hard on the birds themselves. But - to end on a good note, usually these conditions and harsh seasons are cyclical (as a lot of natural systems are) so this may be nature's way of keeping populations healthy and thinning out the "herd", so to speak.  Either way, it makes for some excellent wildlife viewing right now - so if you can brave the cold and slick roads...get out there and enjoy the owls!

Happy Birding

 - Jason

"Raptor's Delight!"

Tuesday, Janary 8, 2013Bald eagle

RAPTOR'S DELIGHT   -  Bear River Gang

"I said a hick, a hawk, a rough-legged hawk 

I said a hick, a hawk, and you don't stop, til you get a Red-tailed hawk!"

O.K. For anyone not around for the early ages of rap, that lil ditty might be completely over your head...and even IF you were around, it is most definitely silly, I admit.  But my recent trip around the Refuge and the surrounding promontory mountains was SO FILLED with raptors that I just couldn't help myself in changing Rapper's Delight to RAPTOR'S DELIGHT!

As part of the Mid-winter Bald Eagle Survey...I got the chance for a chilly drive to search for eagles and raptors...and my, they didn't disappoint.  My tally by the end of the survey was well over 100 raptors seen of 9 different varieties!  We'll start with the most famous...Bald eagles.

I spied 14 Bald eagles, 9 adults and 5 juveniles, along my route. Did you know you can tell the youngsters apart?  You can!  Bald eagles do not become mature adults, with fully white heads (where the name Bald comes from) and white tails til they reach four or five years of age.  Before this - they are very splotchy and patchy with white and brown feathers all over..and their beaks lighten from dark to the famous bright golden yellow.  Bald eagles love it here in Utah in the winter - hunting for fish along open areas in the ice and congregatting in tall cottonwoods along the rivers.

Their slightly larger and darker cousins, Golden eagles, stay in the area year-round.  Golden eagles are named for the golden colored plumage on the backs of their heads when they are adults, but again - when they are younger - they have some white feathers in large patches under their wings.  Unlike Bald eagles who prefer to eat fish, Goldens prey on mammals in the open grasslands like rabbits, marmots or even baby deer or sheep. They also rarely nest in trees, but prerfer cliffs and rock ledges.  I was lucky enough to see 5 of these majestic raptors along the route.

Along with the eagles...this route is an excellent place for other raptors, such as owls, hawks and falcons.  I spied one Prairie falcon and many American kestrels... our smallest falcons.  Peregrine falcons are also seen along this route frequently...but I was not able to find one out there today. Peregrines are known for their 200mph stoop, or dive, to knock their prey right out of the air!

I mentioned owls...and they did not elude me today. I was able to spot two Great Horned Owls. These are the earliest breeders of the owls - already setting up pairs and nests and calling constantly to each other at night.  Another owl species that was spotted is the short-eared owl. This little owl is diurnal as well as nomadic...sometimes around in big numbers and other years there may be none at all - all depending on the availability of food sources like mice and voles. This year in northern Utah - it has been a GREAT year for the short-eareds. Almost every trip around the Auto Loop provides a look at several.

And last but not least, is the larger hawk species such as the common Red-tailed hawk and the winter visitors from the Tundra - Rough-legged hawks. These two large Buteo hawks are easily spotted, usually perched atop a telephone pole or tree-top, watching calmly for a small rodent or bird to make a mistake and fly too close or move too slowly. Adding these two species together made up over half of my survey count, totalling 51 birds seen!

So you see- Raptor's Delight is definitely an apt description of the Refuge and northern Utah in the winter months!  I hope you get a chance to experience it!

 - Happy Birding,  Jason