It seems like the natural way to begin my first nature blog would be to start it off discussing my passion for finding and observing owls, so I’ll begin with one of the first Saw-whet Owls that I found, many years ago in the Middlefork State Fish & Wildlife Area of east-central Illinois in December 1985. I had found Long-eared Owls and a couple of other Saw-whet Owls in the previous few winters at other Vermilion County locations, and was beginning to get pretty good at knowing how to locate both of these somewhat hard-to-find species. That winter, a couple of other birders wanted to come up from Coles County to look at my most recent Saw-whet Owl, one being a guy named Ron Bradley. I was happy when I took them into the small grove of red and white pines where I’d found the Saw-whet, and it was still there for them to see. Amazingly, I did not see Ron again until the winter of 2013/2014, though I lived only an hour north of Coles County and regularly traveled throughout the state in search of birds many times every year. Last winter, Ron helped me track down one of the Prairie Falcons that both he and Tyler Funk have been finding, photographing and keeping track of for Illinois’s birding community as this rare falcon has returned to the same Coles County farm fields each of the past three winters. I mention this encounter with these two Coles County birders, especially Ron, because he was nice enough to provide me with the fine photo of the Great Gray Owl which graces my Flights of Nature blog site cover page. Today, Ron takes a boat load of really nice bird photos and has many displayed on his Flickr photo site at www.flickr.com/photos/avesr2. Ron also provides me with a bunch of his great bird photos for use in the Illinois Ornithological Society’s journal, the Meadowlark: A Journal of Illinois Birds, that my wife and I are the editors for. I think that Ron and I were both somewhat amazed that somehow almost thirty years had slipped by since we had last went birding together! I will likely be seeing him again this winter for a better look at those falcons.
Although it is hard for me to pick a favorite owl species, I usually tell folks that it is the Saw-whet Owl. This is probably so because I never tire of finding them, though the only birders that have possibly seen more Saw-whets in Illinois than I are the owl banders at the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory near Rockford. Finding one of these cute little owls after having spent many dozens of hours searching for them most winters in the past, still never fails to bring about a rush of excitement, surprise, and enjoyment, though I always expect to find at least one most winters.
Photo – No. Saw-whet Owl that I found holding on to a decapitated Peromyscus (probably white-footed) mouse, after having eaten the head. This bird was found at the Pine Hills Nature Preserve, near Shades State Park, in west-central Indiana. I found Saw-whets at this preserve most winters that I looked for them here between about 1985-1995.
The Barred Owl holds another type of excitement for me, for I can imitate the Barred Owls call pretty well, so well in fact that if there is a Barred Owl within earshot of one of my imitations of their ”Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-awwwlll” call, they will virtually always respond, with enough patience and persistence on my part. This owl is found commonly in mainly bottomland areas throughout Illinois, so that no matter what part of Illinois I might be in, I can have a “friend” to talk to while I’m out walking in the woods. Once while canoeing the Cache River with my good friend Jim Smith for our coverage area on the Horseshoe Lake (Alexander County) Christmas Bird Count, I called in 23 Barred Owls while canoeing approximately 23 miles of the river from the town of Ullin to our takeout point just before its confluence with the Mississippi River. The Barred Owl is a member of the Genus of owls known as Strix, Strix varia to be precise. I have “talked to” and otherwise sought out various other species within the genus Strix, including the endangered Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) on my birding trips to the western U.S. mountains of Arizona and California, the Mottled Owl (Strix virgata) in several Central & South American countries that I have visited, and the African Wood Owl (Strix woodfordii) on my one trip to Uganda. However, the most impressive member of the Strix family that I have seen many times in far northern Wisconsin and especially in northeastern Minnesota, is the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa).
After seeing Great Grays a few times near Duluth, in Aitken, St. Louis, Lake & Cook Counties in northeastern Minnesota on personal trips and on a couple of trips I led for interested Illinois birders, my friend Peter Weber and I led several more winter birding trips for interested groups of birders, to the Duluth area for that areas “winter bird specialties” with 3-4 of the higher priority species being Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Boreal Owl… and always the Great Gray Owl which we never missed. My wife Sheryl and I also made a trip up to the Duluth area several years ago during the massive Great Gray Owl invasion there and saw exactly 50 Great Gray Owls in three days! I never expect to see that many Great Gray Owls in one trip again in my lifetime! The site of the owls scanning right past you for prey, from 50-100 feet away, with absolutely no concern of your presence, their remarkable white ”bow-tie” feathering standing out even at quite a distance at dusk, is something that every birder should experience at least once in their lifetime.
Sometime I will relate my first trip in search of the rare and much more elusive Boreal Owl with (at the time) my young daughter, but that’s for a later blog… don’t want to burn out on owls first thing. Well, I hope folks will enjoy some of my upcoming blog posts in the years to come. They won’t all be about birds, though most will likely at least mention a few. I will often talk about specific bird behavior, even of the more common birds, but which maybe even the more experienced birders have never noticed. I’ll also talk about how to find some of the more uncommon species of birds like the rails, owls and harder to find warblers and sparrows. Since most things in nature are of interest to me, there will be a lot of talk about plants, and at least occasional talk about everything from cicadas to copperheads and beetles to bears. And probably lots of travel… from my past trips throughout Illinois and the United States to many far-flung countries in the Tropics and hopefully throughout the World. For those that like to read, I will occasionally talk about the past or latest books that I have read on birds, animals, and nature-related travelogues, and I’ll pass along those things that I think might be most interesting to you. Hopefully some of it will be informative, entertaining or at least new from what you may already be reading or have read on other birding or nature-related blogs. Good birding and let the snow begin!