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Sunday, 16 December 2018

Bad Weather - Good Birds

15 December 2018

     The weather here of late has been unrelentingly grey and gloomy, with fog and rain being all too regular.
     We have not been doing much birding given the conditions, but sooner or later the genetic imperative kicks in and one cannot resist any longer!
     On a grey day, with compromised visibility, Miriam and I packed up a thermos of coffee and two of her heavenly blueberry muffins and set out to see what we could find on a drive through the hinterland of Waterloo and Wellington Counties. Most of the snow has disappeared and the farmers' fields are brown and soggy.


     In truth, there was very little bird life, but what we did encounter was very interesting. 
     At this time of the year we scan the trees for Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and Rough-legged Buzzards (Buteo lagopus), the latter an arctic raptor that spends the winter here in large numbers. We found but a couple of Red-tails and no Rough-legs!
     However, the scan of a distant bare tree revealed an adult Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), no doubt eyeing the terrain for potential prey. The following picture perhaps gives some idea of the distance.


     Miriam's camera has a bigger zoom than mine and her images give a little more detail.



     It is always especially pleasing to us to sight a Bald Eagle, thankfully no longer a rare event here. This species, although the national bird of the United States has been subjected to merciless and unceasing persecution by humans, with many states paying bounties on Bald Eagle kills, and it was also severely impacted during the dark days of organochlorine pesticide use, with death and thin-shelled eggs causing severe population declines. (It is hard to imagine that anyone is not familiar with Rachel Carson's classic work Silent Spring but if you have not read it get down to your local library right now!)
     Benjamin Franklin's reaction to the adoption of the Bald Eagle on the great seal of America, probably spurred on those bent on its annihilation. Here is what he wrote to his daughter on the subject.

Franklin's Letter to His Daughter (excerpt)
"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
"With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country...
"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
     
     An adult Bald Eagle is a stunning bird, and a view of one never fails to elicit admiration from me, and many others I suspect. Whenever we have visited Vancouver Island where Bald Eagles are common, people with hardly a passing interest in birds in general, go out of their way to point them out to us.



     While not passing up the opportunity to scavenge on carrion they are adept at taking live fish from the water in spectacular fashion and are equally proficient at capturing waterfowl in the winter when the lakes and rivers are frozen.
     And they are frequently quite approachable. Here is a picture I took a couple of years ago of an individual exploiting the resources of the Conestogo River, not all that far from where the pictures were taken yesterday, especially as an eagle flies!


     Several pairs of Bald Eagles have nested successfully in the Grand River watershed in recent years, with one pair nesting in the town of Conestogo, well within sight of human settlement, for three successive years and fledging young each year. The standard Bald Eagle clutch is two eggs and if sufficient food is available both young usually survive to leave the nest. 
     A dull day was certainly illuminated for us by this encounter, but the illumination was about to get a little brighter.
     As we drove along, pulling over onto the shoulder all the time to let faster traffic pass by, we searched the fields for Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus), a bird of great mystery for most, but a common winter visitor here. Just as we were about to conclude that we had been skunked for the day, Miriam told me to stop. Far off in the distance she saw a "bump"on a patch of snow.


     Snowy Owls always seek out remnant patches of snow where they are camouflaged, rather than standing out as a stark patch of white on the brown substrate of the field.
     It was indeed a Snowy Owl!


     These pictures are of course entirely unsatisfactory but it was the best we could do given the distance, our equipment and the appalling light.
     Snowy Owls that spend the winter here seem to be especially drawn to certain fields and we can reliably expect to find them in familiar locations. Here are pictures taken last year at same farm, albeit a little closer. A piece of rusting farm machinery was obviously an appealing perch for this female.


     And for this one a tree served equally well.


        The biggest challenge Snowy Owls seem to face in Southern Ontario comes from over-zealous photographers who stop at nothing for the perfect photograph and trespass on private property and willfully put up the owls in order to obtain flight shots. Owls resting to conserve energy are sorely and unnecessarily stressed by this behaviour.
     Here are a few other shots of Snowy Owls taken over the past few years.




     Climate change on their arctic nesting grounds is having a deleterious effect on Snowy Owl breeding success and the future does not look bright for this iconic species, perhaps the most recognizable owl in the world. Most birders have this species in the top ten of the birds they wish to see. Let us hope it will still be possible for them to do so for many generations to come.    


50 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post, David - I'm delighted that you raised two fingers to the weather and found these birds. I suspect I might have been almost as excited by the Bald Eagle as I would have been by the Snowy Owl. Although my dream came true when I saw a Snowy Owl earlier this year in UK, if anything, it has whetted my appetite to see more of this species.

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    1. You can never see too many Snowy Owls, Richard, and each one leaves you gobsmacked.

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  2. Hari Om
    Well, you managed two more birds than I have over the past couple of weeks. Our weather having been equally grim, even the seagulls have been keeping a low profile! YAM xx

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  3. Hello, great post on the Bald Eagle and the Snowy Owls. They are both awesome birds to see, I am glad the Eagle is becoming a more common sight. The Snowy Owls are making their way here this winter, a few sightings in Maryland this week. One was seen on one of the spans of the Chesapeake Bay bridge and at the nearby Sandy Point Beach Park.. I hope to see a Snowy Owl this winter. Happy Birding, enjoy your day!

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  4. Hi David,
    it's the magical season for the Snowy Owls! These creatures are magnificent ( some perches are less beautiful!).

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  5. Hi David
    Wow, you and Miriam have fantastic birds seen!
    The Bald eagle is of course great! And the snowy owl is magical!
    Wonderful post!
    Best regards,
    Maria

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  6. Hola David, es impresionante la belleza de estas aves que nunca he visto, me ha gustado mucho conocerlas. Haces unas fotos magníficas y tienes un blog que voy a seguir con entusiasmo.
    Un abrazo.

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  7. Precioso reportaje nuevamente ¡como siempre amigo y profesor David! No conocía el búho nevado y es una autentica maravilla. Con razón quieren los fotógrafos obtener un buen disparo y poder captar esa imagen bella, pero como bien dices con esa insistencia pueden llegar a estresar a ese bello búho. Tampoco conocía la leyenda del águila Calva, a mi modo de ver es un bellísimo ejemplar que también deberían respetar y proteger máxime siendo el ave por naturaleza simbólica de Estados Unidos.
    Realmente no era un día muy apetecible por el tiempo pero realmente mereció la pena.
    No dejas de sorprender con tan buenas fotografías y extraordinarios relatos.
    Un fuerte abrazo estimado amigo.

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  8. David, these are very impressive photos of a Bold Eagle! This bird majestic bird is so difficult photograph.
    The Snowy Owls are so special! You were so lucky to get close to these wonderful birds.
    Yes, there are some wildlife photographers who are "hunters", they have only one goal to get a great picture. I don't have a respect for them.

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  9. Hello David!
    You where so lucky seeing the Snowy Owl! It’s my favorite bird!
    Awesome pictures of the beautiful and stunning Bald Eagle and the adorable, Snowy Owl!
    Have a lovely week!
    Dimi...

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  10. The bald eagle is particularly impressive. I have never seen one in the wild. I grew up in Halton Hills, so I'm familiar with the area, particularly since I've still got cousins all over Wellington.

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    1. If ever you are down this way, William, it should not be hard to find one. In fact, the Conestogo dam at the reservoir near Glen Allen is a pretty reliable spot.

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  11. I am glad that you are prepared to brave the weather 'cause I am not willing to do so!! I have only ever seen a Snowy Owl in captivity 😒, but I cheer myself by thinking maybe it was damaged in some way and could not be left in the wild. As for the bald Eagle, again I have only seen one in captivity, but my Southern African blood tells me that the African Fish Eagle is just a tad more beautiful with a haunting call and I have seen and heard them often.
    Take care and I wish you and Miriam all the very best for Christmas and 2019. Diane

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    1. Hi Diane: In terms of beauty I think that the two eagles are a bit of a stand off, but in terms of vocalization I am bound to agree with you. It certainly has an evocative and haunting call. I too have seen them often, in South Africa and Ethiopia, but not nearly as much as you of course.

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  12. Bad weather EXCELLENT birds. Rachel Carson was one of the first (and most influential) environmentalists. And an excellent (albeit sad) read.

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    1. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all was the way she was mercilessly attacked by the manufacturers of these odious poisons for whom, as so often seems to be the case, profit trumped everything.

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    2. Feel free not to publish this comment, but reading your response the link to profit Trumping anything struck home.

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    3. It is pretty a propos these days isn’t it? I just read now that he wants to punish people who buy electric cars.

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  13. Beautiful photos of the Bald Eagle and the Snowy Owl, David. I understand the weather conditions, because we had the same weather in November. Here the snow have fallen all day. Not much, but very nice before Christmas.

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  14. The bald eagle is always an impressive bird to see. We saw them when we were in Alaska years ago. You got some great shots of the Snowy Owl, a very pretty owl to see. Thanks for sharing and have a wonderful new week.

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    1. Alaska is probably THE epicentre for Bald Eagles and the population there was not as seriously affected by pesticide contamination as in the lower forty-eight states,

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  15. Good eyes to spot the snowy owl so far away on that snow bank. I used to see them, and so many Eagles as well, in Minnesota. I've spent many Sunday afternoons like today driving the backroads searching for the owls.

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    1. I can well imagine that Minnesota would be very productive for these species. Great birds, huh?

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  16. You had fantastic luck. Bald eagles are always great to see, but a snowy owl is really special. We get a few down here at the ocean, and I have seen them, but not for a few years. It is always worth a drive to try to find them though. I'd say you had a great day out.

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    1. Good luck to be sure, but a little persistence and a couple of hours of searching didn’t hurt either.

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  17. Härligt att få se dessa imponerande rovfåglar i naturen, jag har alltid varit en supporter av de stora rovdjuren och deras rätt att existera i vår natur. Sorgligt att läsa presidentens brev till sin dotter, så moraliserande över en art som bara gör det den har fötts till. På samma gång är det upplyftande att konstatera hur mycket vi trots allt lärt oss, de flesta i alla fall.

    Snöugglan är så speciell och jag förstår varför det är värt en hel del tålamod och besvär för att få se den. Som alltid blir jag fascinerad av detaljerna du delar med dig, som att snöugglan söker sig till snöiga platser som ett skydd mot upptäckt. Så har evolutionen ordnat det för att säkra artens överlevnad.

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    1. One day you will have to come here, Gunilla, and we will go and find Snowy Owls together.

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  18. Hi David,
    I can imagine that you felt great to see both predators. Of course you would have liked it to seem them from a bit closer distance, but just to see them is a good start. Maybe you'll be lucky this winter to encounter them again. The pictures you have taken in the past are promising. And yes, Silent Spring of Rachel Carson is familiar to me, for already many, many years.
    Greetings, Kees

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  19. Hi David.

    A beautiful bird of prey.
    The Snow Owl is beautiful.
    Beautiful photos.

    Groettie from Patricia.

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  20. It’s always a joy seeing your great birds!Bald Eagle is fantastic!
    I wish I could have a chance to see that charming Snow Owl in person.
    It's so cute, just like a stuffed toy.
    Have a good new week,David.

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  21. Very impressive birds, if i'd just seen those two species on a trip out i'd be very happy!

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  22. Hola David.

    ¡Qué maravilloso para mi sería poder observar al Bubo scandiacus! Desde luego no es posible en estas latitudes, debería de viajar bastante más al norte. xD

    Preciosas fotos, un abrazo y FELIZ NAVIDAD para ti, Myriam y vuestra familia y lecotres.

    Un abrazo,

    Rafa.

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  23. I so empathise David. Grey soggy days seem the norm here at the moment, often with the added factor of too much wind here so close to the West coast. Nonetheless, as often as possible, I like you hit the birding trail in preference to being a caged tiger.

    The difference is you have blueberry muffins, Bald Eagles and Snowy Owls as superb compensation while I have Conder Green and a bacon butty.

    Poor old Benjamin Franklin. Here’s me thinking he was a North American hero. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so obviously we must now rewrite history so that he can go to the bottom of the class alongside Winston Churchill and all of those other scoundrels.

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    1. I have to say that a blueberry muffin sounds better than a cold bacon butty! Yesterday Miriam made a whole batch of Morning Glory muffins, so now we have a choice even.

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  24. Good to see those iconic birds of your winter. We do get the odd Rough-Legged Buzzard here during winter but they are infuriating birds in that they sit for hours without doing anything, usually in such a position that it's impossible to verify that it's not just a particularly inactive Common Buzzard!

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  25. Enhorabuena David, impresionantes fotos y espectaculares aves. Un abrazo para los dos.

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  26. Amazing are eagles - many stay in the middle of the road in outback Australia as you drive past if they are feasting on roadkill.
    Love that owl.

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    1. Crows are the principal species to feed on road kill here and they seem to have timing down pat. It is very rare to see one hit by a vehicle. They get out of the way just in time and return to the carcass almost instantly.

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  27. The Bald Eagle is a winner, and the Snowy Owl is fabulous, great post David.

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  28. A great post! < 3
    I am following you and invite you to me
    https://milentry-blog.blogspot.com

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  29. It may have been a gray day, but something was shining somewhere for you two with a couple of remarkable sightings. Kudos to Miriam for noticing the "white bump". Now that was special. I've only seen one owl in the wild but that snowy owl -- wow. Like a holiday gift wrapped in snowflakes. And those eagle shots -- nice! They are formidable looking birds, aren't they? There is one on our lake I've only seen in flight once but I'm always glad Lizzie is an inside cat when I do. I think they are powerful enough to snatch her up!

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  30. Snowy owl is awesome, David. Miriam and you were lucky to see this bird!

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  31. Los búhos me gustan mucho, me gustan las aves en general pero el búho me llama mucho la atención.

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  32. Muy interesante David. Un post con mucha vida.Los búhos son preciosos.
    Feliz Navidad 🔔⛄🕊❄️🎄 Merry Christmas amigo.
    Un abrazo.

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  33. Very good birds!
    A lovely post.

    All the best Jan

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  34. Ohhhhhhh ....... the pictures of the big sea eagle are fantastic but ........ I am in love with the snow owl !!!! I love owls and I can only see a snowy owl in a zoo. You just see the snowy owl in the wild. So cool. I am jealous of this beautiful series.

    Kind regards, Helma xx

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  35. I'd definitely brave the weather for Bald Eagles and Snowy Owls! Thanks so much for sharing these awesome birds!

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