Monday, February 13, 2006

Nine Springs Owling

I was on the early shift today so I decided to head out to Nine Springs after work to see if I could glimpse a Short-eared Owl that was sighted last Tuesday. It's been a few years since I've gotten a good look at this species so I was pretty hopeful of my chances. Nine Springs is a regular birding haunt during spring and fall migration, especially for shorebirds, but it looks so desolate this time of year - the ponds are frozen and all the vegetation is dead brown. But hey, after being stuck inside for over two weeks from that blasted flu virus, I'll take what I can get.

Walking down the main path there were Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows and a few Song Sparrows picking through gravel. Flocks of Canada Geese seemed to be headed in every direction - there must have been several hundred, maybe even thousands. The majority of them were east of my location, over by Lake Waubesa. I scanned each flock for other goose species, but no luck. I spotted a Northern Harrier struggling with prey on the ground - it eventually flew off with a medium-sized rodent in its talons.

There were several Red-winged Blackbirds at the back part of the marsh. Though this is the earliest I've seen them in back in Wisconsin, they're usually counted on the annual CBC. While scanning the horizon I also spotted a Great-horned Owl sitting on a nest.

Checking behind me, I saw someone heading in my direction and wondered what sort of crazy person would be coming out to the settling ponds in mid February at dusk? Alas, it was another birder! Quentin Yoerger, a birder from Evansville, said he was also looking for the Short-eared Owl. But when he told me this was his fourth attempt to see the owl without luck, my hope began to fade. Just minutes after telling me he had seen a River Otter a few days ago, we spotted one just a few yards away walking on the ice edge along the stream next to the path.

Past dusk, visibility was quickly becoming a problem and still there was no sign of the Short-eared Owl, so I decided to call it and headed home. It was satisfying just to be outside for a change. By the time I walked back to my car it was too dark to even scan the field with my binoculars.

I don't like to leave my optics in the car for any reason, for any length of time on account of all the horror stories I hear at work about stolen binoculars and scopes. However, wearing them into a convenience store can also be a little risky. I was pretty chilled, so on my way home I stopped at a quick-mart type place for some hot coffee. Right when I walked in some guy came up to me, pointed at my binoculars and said, "Hey, those look, like, really expensive. Can I, like, try them, dude?" I was dark outside and we were inside a convenience store...what could he possibly want look at? Donuts? Magazines? Softdrinks? Thinking fast, I told the guy it was too difficult to remove the harness strap they were connected to. He asked two more times to look through them but I finally convinced him that the binocular and I were one (OK, maybe that wasn't so smart). Next he asked why I had the binoculars on, so truthfully I replied I had been looking for owls nearby. Then he said, "Hey, remember when you were, like, little and owls were, like, really scary looking? And now they're, like, totally cool, right?" Honestly, I felt obliged to be agreeable to his sentiment, paid for my coffee and left.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

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