Hunting the High Ground, Part 2

The complete story of an immature Snowy Owl hunting on bare ground during a brief winter thaw couldn’t be squeezed into a single post. The subtleties of owl behavior during an  active hunt, particularly those pertaining to mobility, deserve special treatment in a dedicated post.

The owl was hunting a bare patch less than 30 meters across. In addition to the attack on a small mammal described in the previous post, he moved several times during my hour-long visit. Short distances of a meter or two were covered by walking, longer distances by a short, low flight. I likened this behavior to that of a human hunter, birdwatcher or nature photographer who might sit in one place for awhile and, if nothing happens, move a little further down the trail and try again.

These images depict a Snowy Owl walking, presumably to gain a better vantage point from which to hunt. (walking is a common behavior, but I suspect they hope no one is around to take their picture when they’re doing it, preferring instead to be immortalized in flight!)

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In this sequence, the owl has flown about 20 meters, from bare ground to the snow-covered fringe, and is skidding to a stop.

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Note the fragment of corn stalk in his face, and his reaction!

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Snowy is hunting the bare ground again, but this time with the added advantage of natural camouflage.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Hunting the High Ground, Part 1

When on their summer range in the treeless arctic tundra, Snowy Owls prefer to nest on high ground. An elevated site will be dryer and free of snow sooner than a lowland site, conditions that favor hunting and nesting success.  A reconnaissance of the local wintering habitat illustrated the importance of high ground on winter range as well.  A warm spell in late February reduced the snow pack considerably, exposing small patches of bare ground  on wind-swept knolls and hilltops. I discovered an immature male hunting one of these bare spots in bright, mid-morning sun, and made the most of the opportunity.

Mr. Snowy was “mousing”, i.e. searching for any of several species of small mammals, including mice, voles and shrews.

Like a “sleeping” cat, this restful pose can be deceptive. The flight of a bird overhead or the faint squeak of a vole under the snow could alter the scene dramatically.

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Abruptly, a tall profile and intense stare were triggered by movement and/or sound – I can’t be certain. Guided by his reaction, I got a glimpse of something small and dark, scurrying briefly across the surface of the ground before disappearing in a maze of debris, mud and snow. I guessed it to be a Meadow Vole.

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The chase was on! Impressively, the short distance was covered in a few powerful wing beats. Patient hunting on the high ground during a winter thaw fed the young owl.

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Hunting in partially thawed mud can be messy, requiring an occasional pit stop to groom feet and talons!.

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To be continued ……….!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Winter Robins

After a month of bitterly cold weather and tonight’s forecast predicting more of the same, I have to post something that says “spring is on its way”!!! What better topic than a traditional harbinger of spring, the American Robin.

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I walked a mile of trail today in snowshoes in order to pack the deep, fluffy snow underfoot and make trail walking a bit easier for me and my 15 -inch-tall canine companion. On the return trip, I stumbled into 15 or 20 robins foraging in a dense thicket of shrubs and small trees. They were feeding on the berries of a small, shrubby tree, Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus carthartica),  and a vine, Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora). Both of these woody plants are exotic and considered to be invasive, but their persistent fruits are eaten by a variety of birds and mammals in winter. Deer, squirrels, grouse, turkeys, robins, and cedar waxwings all include these items in their winter diet.

Here is my attempt to capture the process of robins feeding on Buckthorn fruit, fluttering somewhat clumsily from one cluster of berries to another amid the branches.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Winter Birding and Fresh Manure!?

My recent post on Arctic birds (Arctic Birds, Large and Small – 28Jan2014) generated a lot of interest in Snow Buntings, so I decided to road hunt for a flock and create a follow-up post. I targeted open, snow-covered fields with scattered weed stalks and seed heads visible above the snow, habitat that isn’t all that common on intensively managed farms. I found nothing, and began cursing the effects of “clean” farming on wildlife habitat. Minutes later, I felt the need to apologize to the farming community for that thought. In the distance, a solitary American Crow was feeding in a 300-foot-long strip of freshly spread cow manure. Crows are intelligent creatures, and I like to think that this one felt sorry for me and was intentionally directing my gaze to the huge flock of Snow Buntings nearby, also foraging for seeds in the fresh manure!

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Fortunately, the strip of manure was perpendicular to the road and my truck blind. The buntings fed from the far end of the strip toward the road, at first looking more like a colony of army ants than a flock of songbirds. They fed until they ran out of manure, or until spooked by the noise of a passing vehicle. At that point the flock burst into flight and the wave-like mass either left for awhile or returned to the far end of the manure strip to begin the feeding process all over again.

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Many other species of birds have learned the value of manure as a source of food in winter – turkeys, doves, sparrows, gulls and blackbirds to name a few. “Winter Birding 101”: follow the manure spreader!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Backyard Deer

A growing problem in wildlife management involves large numbers of deer living in and around developed areas. Most of these habitats are off-limits to hunting and the resident deer grow tolerant of, even dependent upon, people. A recent study of the deer problem in a small village in upstate New York reported a deer density of 45 per square mile – about four times the recommended, sustainable density. The problem really surfaces in winter, when hungry deer frequent residential and commercial properties to forage. Backyard sightings at bird feeders and the destruction of landscape shrubs like Yew (Taxus) are common occurrences. As are starving and dead deer, mostly fawns, when snowy winters are long and harsh.

These photos were all taken in January, 2014. The deer (about 10 in all) were frequenting a private, residential property and raiding bird feeders. I have watched adult does kick fawns away from winter food but, in this instance, it was the yearling buck demonstrating the harsh reality of “nature’s way”. The young buck would not allow any other deer, adult does or fawns, to feed on birdseed when he was within striking distance.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.