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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Owl Prowling: The Elusive #200

As I looked over my year and county lists heading down the stretch, I identified owls as a group I could target to pick up some more ticks for both lists. My efforts started on San Juan Island, where I surveyed the prairie habitat at the south end of the island for a snowy owl. It's a bit of a stretch, but sightings do occur every so often on the island and there seems to be a pretty decent flight of snowy owls in western Washington right now with numerous reports around the state. I didn't find one, but I did find a short-eared owl near the Cattle Point lighthouse like I mentioned in my last post.

I got a tip from a friend about a good barn to investigate for barn owls. After talking to the owner, we headed out and climbed up into the loft of an old barn that looked like a perfect hangout for barn owls. We spooked two roosting rock doves out of the rafters, but no owls. Closer inspection turned up a couple of barn owl feathers and some rather fresh-looking owl pellets (including a rodent skull of some sort), so it seems like they're still using the site. It will be worth returning and taking another look, for sure.

Later that same night I recorded some owl vocalizations onto my phone and we headed out to do some nighttime owling. Stopping at some haphazardly chosen locations and playing great horned and western-screech owl calls didn't turn up any responses, though we did see an owl fly across the road, lit up by my headlights. It was too quick to ID, but if I had to guess, I would say it was a barn owl. It was even headed in the direction of the barn we had investigated earlier!

Giving up the county listing efforts for the holiday weekend, we departed in stormy weather on Tuesday afternoon to head south to Portland. When we pulled into Anacortes the overcast conditions and pouring rain made it seem like dusk already at 3 in the afternoon, but I drove south as fast as conditions would safely allow with a particular target in mind. Stanwood, about an hour away, is the site of some of the aforementioned snowy owl reports, and I wanted to swing through and try my luck before continuing on to Portland.

When we pulled off the freeway to head to Stanwood, the streetlights had already turned on. It was another six or seven miles to the place where, I learned from my dad via text message, two snowy owls had been seen earlier in the day along with six short-eared owls. I drove to the end of the dead end country road that had attracted numerous birders over the previous few days and pulled over to overlook the muddy field where all the owl activity had been. Nothing. I scanned with my binoculars, straining my eyes in the dimming light, figuring that if I had been able to see the trumpeter swans we had passed 15 minutes earlier stand out against the dreary background, a pure white snowy owl would be visible, as well. Way in the distance I saw a tiny white speck on a hillside; maybe it was an owl, but there was no way to tell for sure.

It was getting even darker, and the rain was still pouring down. There was another spot a few more miles away that the owls had been reported, and I weighed my options. I knew if I didn't try now, I would be kicking myself and would have to take this detour again on the way north six days later, if the owls were still present. There being no time like the present, we headed even further away from the freeway and the hours of stormy nighttime driving that awaited us. While stopped at an annoying long traffic light, I not so silently cursed myself. This was a stupid thing to be doing, right? It was already so hard to see, certainly not what I would consider bird-watching conditions, and there was a long drive ahead of us. But I was committed at this point, so we went on.

At the end of this next country road I parked and pulled on my rain jacket. The directions said you had to proceed on foot to see the owls. I was looking for the landmark specified in the directions, but after a few moments of walking saw nothing resembling the turn off recommended that would lead the owl seeker up onto the dike overlooking the field where the owls had been seen. Acting impulsively, or perhaps heeded some innate guiding sixth sense, I veered off the trail and scrambled up the muddy slope onto the dike where there was a clearing that looked like it would afford a view to the other side.

Straight in front of me, maybe 100 yards away, was a snowy owl (year bird 200). Unable to believe my eyes, I lifted my binoculars and was just able to make out the movement of the owl turning its head to look directly at me. It had been a somewhat more frustrating journey than I had anticipated to go from 199 to 200, but standing in the chilly rain on a dark November afternoon in a brief stare down with a barely-visible snowy owl also seemed somewhat appropriate. 

The rest of the drive to Portland was miserable, the conditions being no more amenable to driving than they had been for bird-watching. But every time I thought of that owl, I was still able to smile. There are many people that probably wouldn't have thought so, but the detour was well worth it.


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

200 up in epic style well done - target attained!
Not seen any snowy owls except the captive one on my Flickr site. Once hiked all over Carn Ban Mhor in the Scottish Highlands for one without success; they rarely come any further south than the Northern Isles here which is way north of where you are.

Race to the 31st is deffo still on now...



Tim Brennan said...

Saw a Tweeters post about a Red-faced Cormorant on Orcas! Going after that one, or would that not be a new one for the year? :)

I tried up and down Bailer Hill Road for Owls back in Feb. with no luck. Hope you grab a couple soon!