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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Short-eared Owl - FINALLY!

Short-eared Owl
Image Credit: Tam Stuart

This morning Drew Weber reported a Short-eared Owl flying over Shiloh Rd. I decided to go out there after work to see if I could locate it. So far, my luck with SEOWs has not been good. As Jack Cochran can testify, I have spent over 30 hrs standing in the sub-freezing temps at various locations around Centre and Huntingdon counties (including Shiloh Rd) trying to find one. Thanks to Drew's leg work, I was FINALLY able to find one today!

I initially spotted the owl flying over the Rockview Prison fields to the east of Shiloh Rd, between 220 and Bricker Rd. For a map, click here. The owl was flying higher than I would have expected. It was pretty far out – about one-quarter mile. Based on the large head, barrel-shaped body, broad wings, and long graceful wingbeats, I was fairly sure it was a SEOW.

I followed it with my scope for about 10 minutes and got a decent view of the wing patch. The owl flew north and then turned and crossed Shiloh Rd somewhere in the vicinity of the Benner Fish Hatchery. It then turned and moved south-west over the field across the road from the parking area and dropped out of sight behind the trees.

Image Credit: Royse Photos

About 5 minutes later, an owl (same one?) flew overhead from the east (heading west) and took up a perch at the top of a tree at the back of the field across from the parking area. It remained there for a good 15 minutes. The owl took off and moved south-east towards Route 220 then turned and headed straight at me, dropping as it approached. I could see its bright yellow eyes growing larger through my bins! I thought it was going to strafe me or remove my scalp! At the last second, it pulled up and landed on a sign adjacent to my car - about 15 feet away!!!

What a fantastic view! I got a clear view of the steaked breast and triangular eye patches. I believe it was an adult male.

Image Credit: Royse Photos

It only stayed a second or two when it caught sight of me and abruptly took off, banked and slowly glided across Shiloh Rd and perched in a tree less than 100 yrds away. I watched the owl for a good 20 minutes. Although it had its back to me, it was constantly rotating its head in quick snappy movements as it presumably scanned for prey. Several times it looked straight down the barrel of my spotting scope. I got some really crappy “Bigfoot quality” photos by holding my cell phone up to the eye piece of my scope.

Here’s a Bigfoot quality digiscope shot from my cell phone.

It started to rain, but the owl remained perched there. I packed up my scope and loaded up the car around 6:15. Again, thanks Drew for finding & reporting the owl! That's two lifers in two days for me!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cackling Goose at the Centre Furnace Duck Pond

A Cackling Goose was spotted by Drew Weber today at the Centre Furnace Duck Pond.

I arrived at the Duck Pond early this morning for my usual check to see if anything dropped out of the sky last night. Drew was already present and seemed somewhat animated. I figured he found the Northern Pintail that was rumored to be present. Turns out he found something much better. A Cackling Goose!

There were about 120 or so geese present this morning. Most, including the putative Cackler, were sleeping with their necks curled back and tucked. There was also a considerable amount of fog overhanging the pond, obscuring the view. I spent about 30 minutes observing the goose in question. The goose was noticeably smaller that the other Canada Geese that were present. During that time he lifted his head 3 times, giving me a pretty good look at its stubby bill. That being said, I was not completely satisfied with the view.

I went back after work this afternoon with my spotting scope and digital camera to take some digiscope shots. By this time, the fog had lifted, the lighting was much better, and the geese were all awake and going about their business. I got some really good looks – and pics - of the goose.

Cackling Goose (back) was noticeably smaller than the Canada Geese (fore) - roughly about two-thirds the size. It was only slightly larger than the local Mallards. In addition, it has a short stubby bill. Based on some rough measurement on the photos, the length of the bill was about 50% the length of the head.

The wings were held above the back in a slightly arched position and the primary feathers extend beyond the tail, as shown on the top photo and the photo below.

Based on these observations, I am fairly well convinced it is a Cacking Goose.

If you look up the Cackler in the Sibley Guide, you may be confused. Sibley shows the Cackling Goose with a much smaller bill and a darker breast. However, it should be pointed out that Sibley was published in 2000, when Cackling Goose was considered a sub-species of Canada Goose. In 2004, the Canada Goose was split by the AOU. Although the Sibley Guide shows 6 sub-species of Canada Goose, there were 11. The seven larger sub-species were grouped together as "Canada Goose", and the four smaller sub-species (Cackling, Richardsons, Aleutian & Taverner's) were grouped under the name "Cackling Goose".

Long story short...the Cackling Goose at the Duck Pond is most likely a Richardson's Cackler, rather than a Cackling Cackler.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Owling in Central Pennsylvania

Barred Owl
Image Credit: Steve Sleep

I was looking over my US life list and noticed that owls in particular were under-represented. This year, I decided to make a conscious effort to actively seek out some owls.

There are 10 species of owl that one can see in Pennsylvania, albeit some of them are rare. They are: Barn Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Barred Owl, Great Gray Owl, Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, & Northern Saw-whet Owl. Of those, the Northern Hawk Owl and Great Gray Owl are the most unlikely to be seen. That leaves eight owls that one has a good or reasonable chance to see in PA each year. Of those, I had only seen or heard (as of 2010) three within the confines of Centre County: Great Horned Owl, E. Screech Owl & Snowy Owl. Two others (Barred Owl & N. Saw-whet Owl) I have seen or heard in the state, but that was more than 20 years ago in Cobbs Creek Park, Delaware County.

Last month, I hooked up with Chad Kauffman and found some Barn Owls nesting in a barn silo somewhere along the backroads of Juniata county. They were quite an exciting find! And life birds to boot!

Other owls have been more elusive. Numerous reports of Short-eared Owls have been posted in Huntingdon County. I have gone down on several occasions to stake out the areas where they were seen but came up empty.

Earlier this week, another birder reported owls in the Scotia Barrens (SGL 176). I had been back there several times over the last six months but had no luck with owls. I decided to give it another shot.

Last night, I headed into the barrens around 8:30 p.m. The moon was nearly full and the temperature was in the mid-30s – making for good owling conditions. I made a quick stop at Scotia Pond where a Great Horned Owl was heard calling. A little further down the road, two more Great Horned Owls were heard calling back and forth.

I then proceeded to the research station where a Eastern Screech Owl was heard. The owl called once, but was not heard a second time. After I settled down, I was able to hear at least one distant Barred Owl calling. I played the Barred Owl call from the PA BBA Owl Survey CD on my iPod/speaker set-up. Within a minute, I observed a Barred Owl slide across the sky in front of the moon and take up a perch in a tree directly adjacent to where I was positioned. What a fantastic bird! The owl seemed to be as interested in me as I was in him. He hung around for a good 10-15 minutes before wandering off. The Barred Owls were county birds for me, and the first Barreds within PA for more that 25 years.

Next month should bring migrating Saw-whet Owls this way.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mass Movement of American Robins

American Robin Roost
Image Credit: Journey North

The return of American Robins is a clear sign that spring is on the horizon!

The vast majority of Robins head south for the winter. For most, south means Florida, the Gulf coast and central Mexico. For others, "south" may mean southern Canada or the northeast US. Here in Centre County, a few Robins are typically present throughout the winter. I observed my first two Robins of the year on January 2, at Scotia Barrens (SGL 176), and continued seeing a few each week through the end of January.

The first significant flocks I observed were seen at Millbrook Marsh on Jan 29th & 30th. I was looking for Rusty Blackbirds for the Rusty Blackbird Blitz. Late in the afternoon, small groups of Robins began coming in to roost. Over both days, about 120 Robins were tallied.

A week later, on Feb 6th, I was out at Shiloh Rd near the Benner Fish Hatchery. It was late in the afternoon and I was scanning the fields of the Rockview State Prison for raptors and owls. Although I did not pay close attention at first, I heard the flight calls from small flocks of Robins streaming overhead. I began counting the Robins as they passed overhead. Within 30 minutes, I was upwards of 1800 birds.

This past weekend (Feb 11th), I was back at Millbrook Marsh looking for Rusty Blackbirds. I was scanning the hills and fields to the northwest of the marsh and noticed a pretty good sized flock of 200+ Robins passing by the Mt. Nittany Medical Center. No sooner did the flock pass that another came by, followed by yet another, and another. Before it was all over, more than 5200 Robins were tallied. Because of my vantage point at the bottom of the hill, I undoubtedly missed a number of Robins that passed beyond my line of sight.

Oddly, both the '1800' and '5200' flocks were not heading north, but rather in a westerly direction. A quick look at the map (click here) shows that the Shiloh Rd site and the Medical Center are about 3 miles apart in a direct south-westerly line. The westerly movement of the Robins seems to have been a local non-mirgatory move, perhaps to a nearby roosting site. One likely destination would be Toftrees Gamelands. In past years, large numbers of Robins have been observed to roost there. I'll have to venture out that way and have a look.