Saturday, April 5, 2014

Baby Owls!!!

   Thanks to my amazing parents, I finally got the lens for my camera I had been wanting. I decided to walk around, just for a few minutes, to see if I could get some decent photos. Turns out, I was out there repeatedly for hours. I expected to get maybe a couple photos of the common birds - robins, cardinals, chickadees, and such - but I was totally wrong! As I  took a few steps into the field behind our house, a Great Horned Owl was sent flying from the line of pines. The bulky bird landed in one of the hackberry trees on the opposite side of the field. I whispered prayers of "don't fly" to myself and ran as close to the owl as I could. She flew once again and was soon mobbed by a male Cooper's Hawk and several American Crows tossing threatening "caws." I snapped some shots of her in flight; nothing great, though, for the lighting was terrible.
   The female Great Horned Owl circled back and this time the Cooper's Hawk did something absolutely incredible...he literally landed on the owl's back! I was so fortunate to capture this in photo, even though only the silhouettes of the birds were visible. The owl landed in a different hackberry tree than before and then a pine, but both only very briefly. Then she was off for the last time with the same hawk and crows and even some screeching, tag-a-long Common Grackles chasing her. That was definitely an exciting performance, but the best was yet to come.

Cooper's Hawk "surfing" on a Great Horned Owl. Click for a larger image.

   I started wandering now, hoping that the owl would return so I could get an even better photo. I came to a house with a pool in the backyard, and it was hilarious, for a male Mallard flew right in to take a dip. I glanced up in the pines and a bird, somewhat long and slim, and perched very upright, caught my eye. I walked over with my breath held in and muttered "Oh my goodness. It's a baby Great Horned Owl!" I did exactly what any other normal person would have done if they saw a baby owl. I grabbed my camera, and with shaking hands, began snapping photos. Every now and then I would stop to look at the bird with my binoculars which were harnessed around me. The little guy's yellow eyes stared me down suspiciously. I looked around, expecting to find the adult owl nearby, and found another baby owl!

 Click for larger image.

   The second little owl turned his head (rotating 180 degrees) and took a peak at me. The poor little dude was sopping wet. I finally ran to tell my siblings and mother about the baby owls and they came out to see. We all marveled at their cuteness. Eventually, I left the owls, only to return on and off throughout the day.
   In the afternoon, my brother came to me with a feather in his hand. He asked if it was an owl feather, and it sure looks like one to me.

Contour feather of a Great Horned Owl.

   This feather was probably plucked off the female Great Horned Owl that was assaulted by the Cooper's Hawk and American Crows earlier.
   Let's fast forward to the next day. I was doing my chores upstairs when my brother stormed in excitedly saying that there was a baby owl in the grass beside our neighbors' fence. I grabbed my camera, ran downstairs, then outside to get a good photo. Surprisingly, the little dude let me get very close. I'd walk, stop and take a few shots, then walk, stop and take a few more shots, repeatedly.

Click for a larger image.

All of a sudden, the baby owl raised its wings and back a bit, clapped its bill, and hissed at me. This (I'm sure) was a sign of defense; he (or she) wanted me to stay back. 

 In the defense posture. Click for a larger image.

   I came back inside and watched from the window. The owl hopped on his long legs to the tree line and hid in the brush. Once again, I went outside and walked to where I had seen the owls yesterday. An adult Great Horned Owl flew from the tree, closely followed by malicious American Crows. In the tree from where the adult owl flew sat the second baby owl. He (again, or she) obviously wasn't leaving that tree.
   From our window, I've spent my day constantly checking on the owl hiding in the brush. I can see his big, round, yellow eyes staring alertly.

More photos follow. Simply click on the image for a larger portrait.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Welcome, Shorebirds

   Tennessee NWR - Duck River Unit
March 30, 2014, 12:00 - 3:15 P.M.

   Small numbers of shorebirds have been reported from across the state recently, and I was dying to get out and find some! We (Dad, Nolan and I) left just before noon and anxiously ventured to the Duck River Unit of the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuges, by far my favorite place to go birding here in Tennessee. On the drive, I was happy to spot my FOY (first of year) Eastern Kingbird perched alertly on a phone wire.
   After arriving at the refuge, we took the first side road to the right and stopped by a couple of areas flooded with water (I could hardly say ponds - perhaps pools?). We immediately spotted shorebirds. One Greater Yellowlegs, which made its presence known quite loudly, and dozens of agitated Wilson's Snipes flew from the grassy edges of the water. Another Greater Yellowlegs stood like a statue near a fallen branch. It finally teetered a bit and resumed its wading.
   We turned around and headed back to the main road. The grass had an ugly color to it. It was dry and brown, not green or gold like in the summer. The trees were also drab, especially under the stellar, cloudless blue sky. In the pool to our left, Blue-winged Teals peeped, Northern Shovelers clucked, and American Coots bobbed silently. We pulled into the parking lot on the right, nearly running over a Killdeer. I hopped out of the truck (we were riding in its bed) and walked over to the Killdeer. The irate Killdeer began screaming frantically and preforming a broken wing display. I searched intently for a eggs, and eventually found four nestled in the gravel. Who knew eggs could be so camouflage! This sighting was very special, for it was my first time to ever see Killdeer eggs, a Killdeer nest, and a Killdeer preforming the typical plover broken wing display. Other than the perturbed Killdeer, several more Wilson's Snipes (flushed, of course) and a Greater Yellowlegs were nearby.

Excuse my shadow, but here is the Killdeer nest containing four eggs!

   We continued on with bunches of Red-winged Blackbirds vocalizing and showing off their red shoulders lined with yellow. Many more Blue-winged Teal were flying, swimming, and peeping. The baby blue on their wings in flight was spectacular to see! We came to a brief loop within the refuge, somewhat strangely named "Blue Goose Boulevard." (Strange because the sign shows a Canada Goose, not the blue morph of a Snow Goose.) Raptors were a common sighting for us on this road. Above, a very pathetic-looking, young Bald Eagle circled. He had lots of white patches mixed with his faded brown, and his bill looked like a giant banana glued to his head. A Red-tailed Hawk soared nearby, and an Osprey appeared in the distance. The Osprey put on quite a show! He plunged, feet first, into the water, and after struggling a bit, rose with a nice-sized fish locked in his talons. Continuing on, we came to a group of five yellowlegs. We hit luck. Among the four Greater Yellowlegs was one Leser Yellowlegs, another year bird for us. The close size comparison was brilliant to witness. As we neared the end of Blue Goose Boulevard, my brother spotted a bird in the corn stubble. He called "American Pipit," but changed his mind and said "Vesper Sparrow." He was right; it was indeed a Vesper Sparrow, and amazingly right beside our truck.
   After birding Blue Goose, we made a left turn onto the main road, making our way toward the exit. We pulled off to the side and scanned what looked like terns flying over the river. The flight surely looked right, but they turned out to be Bonaparte's Gulls. Nearby in the water floated an American White Pelican. As I scanned, my brother pointed out a Solitary Sandpiper feeding in a muddy trench beside the road. I hurried to see it, for it would have been another year bird for me. It took me forever to find the Solitary Sandpiper. Nolan kept saying, "In the ditch, RIGHT THERE!" but my eyes just couldn't pick out anything except mud and grass clumps. Finally, I found it. I had seen plenty of Solitary Sandpipers in the past but had never realized how small they truly were. Well, perhaps they do look quite tall when standing beside miniscule peeps.
   With only fifteen minutes before our goal to leave, we booked it! We turned on a road to our right and drove to look for more shorebirds, and even rails if we were lucky. We did find more shorebirds, but again, only Greater Yellowlegs. One Greater Yellowlegs had some seriously ridiculous yellow legs! I guess all yellowlegs look that way in breeding plumage.
   Finally, it was time to head home. We marked three year birds off our list at Duck River - Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Solitary Sandpiper - plus, I found an Eastern Kingbird on a phone wire, a fourth FOY. A great day birding, but it'll only get better!

See my complete eBird checklist here.