Mobbed!

Earlier in the week I made yet another trip to observe and photograph Arctic birds. My goals were to complete my Snowy Owl story and improve my inventory of Snow Bunting photos. It was a bright, clear morning with an air temperature around 0 (degrees F) and wind chill about minus 10 — roughly 40 degrees below acceptable operating conditions according to my camera manual. The search area is accessible by lightly traveled roads running E-W and N-S, so my strategy was to road hunt. If I found something of interest, I would shoot from the truck if at all possible, using a  padded window edge to steady the camera.

My search of perhaps 15 square miles of tundra-like terrain was drawing to a close, with nothing to show for my efforts. A last minute decision to check an unfamiliar road before heading home led to one of the more interesting and rewarding wildlife observations of my career.

I found an owl, an immature female, doing what I was doing – hunkering down and trying to stay warm. I had my truck and cold weather gear, the snowy her thick, fluffy, insulating feather coat.

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Since my goal was to capture a new and exciting chapter in the life of a Snowy Owl, I waited. And waited. Finally! I never dreamed that I would welcome the disturbing presence of crows in the  midst of a shoot, but in this case they made my day.

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Crows are very intelligent, social birds capable of solving problems. A social group will locate, harass and drive away predators like hawks and owls, a common behavior called mobbing. This wasn’t a typical mob scene though. The crows were unusually quiet (they usually squawk loudly and often), and the owl seemed to be more curious than concerned or annoyed. I wondered if this was just a normal variation in behavior, or a function of unfamiliar species trying to figure one another out.

The gallery that follows includes a few highlights from the mob activity that followed. (The owl eventually found refuge on the ground, under a large shrub, and the crows left it be).

Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

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Arctic Birds, Large and Small

The Arctic weather in Central New York this month has led me to “go with the flow” when searching for nature photographs. Why not hunt for Arctic wildlife when frigid, windy conditions drive everything else to cover?!  And so I did. My subjects were Snowy Owls and Snow Buntings, birds that summer on the Arctic tundra of the far north and typically winter in Canada and northern U.S. I talked briefly about Snow Buntings in a post last February (“Winter Birds – Northern Visitors” 2/7/13) and Snowy Owls in two recent posts (“A Rare Northern Beauty” 12/20/13 and “A Snowy Christmas Eve” 12/24/13). However, I am mesmerized by these charming winter visitors and their amazing adaptations to harsh winter conditions – and must continue to post my experiences with them!

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A flock of over 100 Snow Buntings flying in a synchronized, undulating wave over an open, weedy field

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Part of a small flock of Snow Buntings that was foraging roadside, a common occurrence

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Snow Buntings feeding on weed seeds in an open, windswept field

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An unusual sighting: a solitary Snow Bunting foraging alone; typical of the species, it was walking, rather than flying, from one plant to another

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Snowy Owl on a utility pole surrounded by open, windswept farmland; a favorite perch for hunting and resting

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The low flight behavior and cryptic coloration characteristic of Snowy Owls

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Snowy Owl canvassing a field of corn stubble for prey, possibly a Meadow Vole

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Horse Logging

I’ve always been fascinated by working animals that have been  bred and trained to perform specific tasks afield, and do so in admirable fashion. The music of a beagle baying in hot pursuit of a hare or a team of draft horses working an Amish farm come to mind.

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Although well-versed in scientific forestry, woodlot management practices and forest history, I had not actually witnessed horse logging until a friend decided to have some timber removed from his 40-acre woodlot by an Amish family. They had two teams of draft* horses, a black and white team of seasoned veterans and a chestnut team of young horses in training. (*note: even though some of my very best friends are equine fanatics, I know virtually nothing about horses and must therefore leave the horsey details to the reader!).

This photo shoot was fast and furious, and not without risk. The Amish lads were very cooperative, allowing me to photograph their logging operation. However, they themselves did not want to be photographed, and they made a bit of a game of it. There is someone at the reigns in each photo, but they’re either hanging “side saddle” style behind the horse and rig, or trotting along side the rig out of view. They did this every time they saw me positioned ahead with camera in hand.

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The veteran team hauling a heavy maple log to the log landing (1 of 2)

Bred for hard, physical labor such as plowing and logging, these animals commanded my full attention and respect. I never fully appreciated the strength, massive build, mild temperament and beauty of a draft horse until this experience.

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The veteran team on their way into the woods for another load

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The young team hitched to a log and preparing to haul

Despite their inexperience and youthful enthusiasm, the young team performed amazingly well, backing up, inching forward, waiting, hauling, etc. That said, I’m glad I wasn’t standing on the small, two-wheeled carriage platform as they rumbled and crashed through the woods with a load in tow!

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The young team at work (1 of 2)

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A bit of a rest while trees are being felled

Long after the pre-industrial era, horse logging is still practiced around the world. It can be a useful tool for achieving certain forest management goals. It is a “green”, low-impact alternative to mechanized logging.   

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.