Friday, November 30, 2007

My Owl Mission-Part 7-Long Eared Owls/Barn Owls

Long Eared Owls and Barn Owls are nemesis's for me. I have yet to find one, but just maybe this will be the year...

Barn Owls are the most widely distributed owls of our world and can be found everywhere except Antarctica. They are 13-16 in long, and are the best hunters of all owls using sound alone. Their facial disks are built so precise, that they can hunt in complete darkness, and even locate mice under the snow. They nest in tree cavities and have been known to use buildings (the reason for their common name) and caves as other resources.

LEO's are 14-16 in. tall, and their habitat is dense vegetation bordering open grassland and forests. They can locate and kill mice in complete darkness. Their food source is small mammals and sometimes birds. Long Eared Owls are considered endangered in Illinois.

I searched this past weekend for a Long Eared, but came up empty. I did get some cool shots of Cedar Waxwings for an upcoming post--stay tuned...

This concludes the series on owls. Every owl I have featured here can be found in Illinois. If any of you ever find an owl, please let Hannibal know, or any other interesting animal for that matter.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My Owl Mission-Part 6-Barred Owls

Barred Owls are large owls from 16-25 inches long. They have no ear tufts, and have large dark eyes. They are more tolerant than most owls of noise and people. They will sometimes roost near busy roads if the foodsource is present (along country roads where mice, rabbits and even frogs will be) They are a wetlands type of raptor, but you won't find one getting along with a Great Horned. It is its only natural enemy. The Great Horned will kill a Barred if it is in its territory. They are a very vocal owl and its call is quite famous for mimicking "who cooks for you".

I found my first Barred while driving to a party near Seneca about 3 years ago. We (me and Cutti) took a country road that winds through the wetland forests, and all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye, I see something on a utility line. We stop up ahead and turn around. As we came back, we see that it is a barred owl, and it didn't fly off. We didn't have a good camera on us, but knew we would be back to see if he was there again some day. It was, we came back after several days, and discovered him basically in the same place. We were ready with the proper equipment, and stopped our car about 25 feet from him. Again, he did not fly off. We took plenty of shots before he captured something in the ditch and flew into the forest. We came back several more times after that and discovered alot of toads on the road. We were thinking that is what drew him to the line. We go back to see if he is there, year after year, and sometimes find him on his perch. The sad thing is I haven't got any great shots, because of the lighting. He normally doesn't come out til dusk or later, which is tough conditions for a camera. I really need to work on a better shot, after seeing the quality of this post.

Part 7-Long-Eared Owls

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Owl Mission-Part 5-Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls - These are the owls I find most often, yet never often enough. These owls are the largest for our area. They can be from 18-25" tall, and are referred to as your typical "hoot owl". They are large enough to take on larger prey than other owls, where rabbits, larger birds like hawks, and even skunks can fall victim. In and around January through March is the best time to find these owls, because they are selecting a nest for mating. They do not build their own, they just assume residence in one worthy of their occupancy. Normally they choose a stick nest that is large and strong, usually built by hawks. They will use tree cavities as well. Most owls are never spotted if not on a nest. They will flush, way before you even come close, and you never knew they were even there. But...a Great Horned is different when it comes to protecting their young. They will NOT flush when spotted. They will defend their nest from any predator, including us. There have been attacks by owls to people who wandered in too close to their babies, and got the bad end of their talons in their face. Be warned: Never approach too closely, they are watching you. I try to respect their space as much as I can, because I don't want the nest to fail (They will abandon the nest if the mom gets too stressed). The pictures above were from nesting sites that were used by owls who actually reused the nest for years and years. There were 2 sites that I knew of, but, as bad luck would have it, 1 was a cavity nest that the tree had fallen, so it will no longer be a site.
Being lucky enough to know of a particular site north of here that has nested for 4 straight years. I look forward to this year's "crop" of owlets. The photo of the owl on the brick building was a mother watching her nest from a distance, when her young got too big for her to fit in with them any longer. The photo of the owl family is her, when she could sit with them. I also witnessed her feeding them on 1 lucky day, which was amazing. She looked to have quite the loving expression on her face (see photo above). I also got to see 1 of the owlets puke up a pellet, which was really quite gross, because it looked to be quite a violent heave, but it did come up and out, and the lil guy was all the better for it. I still like that I saw that behavior, even though it was...ummm really sick!

Part 6-Barred Owls

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My Owl Mission Part 3-Screech Owls

You can find screech owls all over the U.S., but the type to find in this region are Eastern Screech Owls. They have 2 morphs: red and gray. I have captured both digitally as shown above. These little guys are the second smallest of the owl genus for our area. They range from 9-10" in height and find tree cavities, for the most part for protection and nesting, although people have had success with nesting boxes. I put up one of my own, but have yet to attract one (although a squirrel has found it a nice place to chew on). They have large yellow eyes and large ear tufts. They eat insects in mid air and prey on small rodents. They have many calls, but the most distinctive, sounds like an eerie horse whinny. I found one (red morph) through a friend, whose sister had one in her tree cavity in rural Morris. The other (gray) was found at Morton Arboretum at the same time I found the saw-whet (see previous post). Both were sunning themselves at the entrance of their home, which is mainly when you can find them. They are the most common of owl species, but to find them is the allure for me. I have yet to discover one on my own without a tip.

Next: Part 4: Snowy Owls

My Owl Mission Part 4-Snowy Owls

Snowy Owls: They are birds of the Arctic Tundra. They are commonly found in Canada, Alaska, and northward. Some Snowy's venture southbound when their food source is scarce (voles and lemmings are their staples, but they do eat rabbits, pheasants and other small animals). The Chicago lakefront gets a few visitors almost every winter, which are mainly juveniles who lose their way. My first snowy was discovered 50 miles south of where I live. I found out about it through the birding hotline on Christmas Eve of last year. I didn't even think I would ever see one ever, so my plan was to go to the site on Christmas morning, before I went to meet my family for the holiday. The information I had was semi-specific, so I had road crossings and landmarks to check. None of that information has a guarantee of a sighting, but I didn't want to miss him if he was just resting on his wayward journey. I got up before dawn and headed for my destination along with my friend Pam. Our research led us to believe that the best time to find him would be at dawn when the snowy would be looking for breakfast, before finding a place to rest for the day. We followed our directions and were nearing our destination with our anticipation building with every mile. With our fingers crossed, we started slowing down and scanning the fields for anything white. We found alot of Walmart bags, and milk jugs cleverly disguised, and pushed on. We are in deep farm country, so crossroads were county roads marked with numbers that increased with each mile. We are getting to the crossroad we are looking for, so now we need to find a certain pole (a photo was taken with this pole) that has a hole in it about 2 inches down from the top. We pass the suspected pole and push on. We now need to find a rusty corrugated steel barn with 2 windows. Well, when you are in farm country, every barn is practically the same. We push on. We see a barn in the distance all by itself in the field. From where we were, it looked like something white was at the peak. Could it be? As we approach, we get our cameras ready. Yes! It is our first sighting of a freakin Snowy! We can't believe our luck. It was amazing to see him, because we are not supposed to. He doesn't belong here, and yet, here he is! We slowly came to a stop at a distant angle and snap a few shots. Our fear of his flying off was lessened with each passing minute. We inched forward, snapped a few, and inched more, gaining ground until we were parrallel to him. We grabbed our tripods, set them up outside our respective windows, threw on our remote shutter cables and snapped away. He never left. We were so entirely thrilled that he wasn't disturbed by us, that we thanked him and left. We came back a few more times after that, and found him in the cornfields, which was a difficult task. We also took some shots of him on a utility pole just as the sun was setting. What a magnificent creature to witness for a wildlife photographer who is used to common types found virtually everywhere if you have the patience and luck to look. He was such a prize!

Part 5-Great Horned Owls

Monday, November 26, 2007

My Owl Mission Part 2-Northern Saw-Whet Owls

My second owl species of this series is the (Northern) Saw Whet Owl. I got my first one last winter, when chasing a hot tip off of the birding hotline. I always want to discover one on my own, or it seems the chase is lost, but this little creature has eluded me for years. It was discovered at Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Il. It cost me $7 for admission to see it, but it was worth the effort for this tiny treasure.

Saw-Whet's are the smallest of our regions owls. Their height is 7-8" and have huge yellow eyes for their size. Their head seems to take up half of their height, and virtually has no visible neck. They are very scarce in this area, so to see one is pure luck. They can be found in small dense trees such as conifers, and their defense is none at all. They will sit still and not fly, leading people to percieve them as tame. They feed on small rodents such as deer mice, and I have read that they eat them as two separate meals. They can only handle smaller chunks, so to swallow one whole in one sitting could lead to choking and death.

It took me more than an hour to find him. My directions were extremely vague. I checked every conifer I could find in this massive area, searching each trunk for a small metal tag identifying its type . In arboretums, they tend to group "like" trees to regions, so checking each one was becoming exhausting and my extremities were not prepared for the amount of time I was spending in this type of weather. ( I wore sneekers, so my feet were soaked in the snow) I really thought I could walk right to it, since I had the species of tree it was in. (A weeping pine) I kept trekking on until I heard some voices ahead. I am hoping they are standing under the tree I seek. I see that they both have cameras, so I am pretty sure I found the spot. I say "saw-whet?" and they point up to an inner branch at the peak of the tree. I still couldn't see it. They tell me to look for the larger bowed branch near the trunk, and there it was. I took some test shots, and found the right settings. The lil guy was sleeping, so I got comfortable. I wanted the perfect shot, since I spent so much time and money, not to mention gas getting here. The other photographers left. I inspected the ground, and found plenty of whitewash and owl pellets (poop and vomit) to keep me entertained. If the guys were not there, I would love to think that I would have spotted it, since the evidence was everywhere. Anyway, I waited for quite some time, and the constant strain of looking up was taking its toll on my neck. I eventually got a shot with his eyes open (well, half open) that was half decent. I went up to the Arboretum several more times, but this shot is the best I got. I was hoping I could get a better angle, but the one you see was the "only" angle to shoot him. I am hoping to find one this year without the help of the hotline, and of course the perfect conditions for a perfect picture.

Part 3: Screech Owl

My Owl Mission Part 1-Short Eared Owls

Tis the season for owl hunting, if you are into that kind of thing, and I am! I can't wait for my first one of the winter season. There are many species of "owl" to seek in these parts. For instance, Part 1 of this series is: Short Eared Owls. SEO's are on the endangered species list. They are a medium sized rapter you can find in open fields soaring and hunting rodents, mainly in the winter months, acting alot like hawks, more specifically, the Northern Harrier. Their ear tufts are short, thus their given name. Their call is alot like the bark of a dog. It is sharp and high, like that of a "yippie" toy breed. They are not your typical "hoot" owl. You won't generally stumble upon them roosting, as most owls, although I have tried once, when I saw one land on a lower branch way off in the distance (it flushed as I approached). You mainly have to rely on the skies for spotting them. They compete with Harriers for food and territory, and I have witnessed the combats and aerial displays. I got my first shots of these guys last year at Goose Lake Prairie State Park. It wasn't a fun venture. When you prepare for this outing, expect alot of bone-chilling wind, along with deep-freezing temperatures. The trek into our "arctic" involves a complete lack of vanity. The knit hat, gloves, ear muffs, scarf, boots, tripod, your camera stuffed inside your coat, and lots of kleenex and patience makes for an uncomfortable few hours. Setting up for them isn't easy either. Short-Eareds are diurnal, but become most active at dusk. You have to deal with longer shutter speeds and tricky lighting. If you are lucky, the light will be enough to capture them as they fly without too much blur. The pictures above are a few I got last year, but as you can see, nothing worth much more than proof of their identity. The top photo is a "google image" of what they look like up close. Also, expect frustration, because with the waiting in the "tundra", its not a sure thing that they will be in your part of that tundra, for a shot. I spent plenty of evenings in the bitter extremes without taking a single shot. Is it worth it? It must be, because I am looking forward to that day I see them again, even in my "arctic frock", and of course, the pursuit for better shots of my favorite species, the owl.

Coming soon in this series: Long-Eared Owls, Snowy's, Saw-Whets, Screech's, Barred, Barn, and Great Horned.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Weekend Bucknanza!

This past weekend was extremely active for the deer population in my special part of the world that holds the best scenario and luck for spotting bucks. This awesome locale is so great, because I can drive thru wooded areas, along with prairie, and most of it is protected from hunters. I can cruize thru the area without limiting my view to a single site if I were to walk thru, or wait for the deer to pass me by, which wouldn't happen, because they would smell me first and avoid me all together. I saw 9 bucks on Saturday, and 3 on Sunday. Every single one was an individual I had not seen before. On Sunday, there was a guy near the road, which could, under the right lighting, be the perfect subject at the perfect distance for photographic perfection. It was still too dark to even attempt a shot. We (Big R, Cutti and I) waited in a parking lot a few miles down for a good half hour until the conditions brightened up a bit. The morning was dreery, and getting more light out of the morning wasn't happening, so we decided to take our chances and see if the massive buck might still be where we saw him in the dark. We set our cameras to an ISO of 800, and the shutter speed at 1/60. We couldn't force any more speed than that, shooting a 300 mm lens. As we drive to the area, we see him, and can't believe he stayed where he was. There can be plenty of traffic here, and with him sticking out, so close to the road, most drivers would stop to take a better look, and his senses would tell him to move away, but our luck held out and we approached slowly. He stood his ground, as did we, and took all the shots we wanted (2nd pic), and was able to drive off without disturbing him. We also found other bucks in various places, and most were 10 points or better. We saw a buck trying to mount a doe (way too far for a shot), an 11 pointer that had tines that were all jacked up (6th pic), a tiny 4 pointer, and another 10 pointer that had been in a fight with a wound on his mouth and a broken off tine(1st pic). All in all, it was probably the best weekend this season for our shots. The shotgun season starts next friday, so under those conditions, I am sure the deer will be scarce, trying to protect themselves in deep cover. Although this area is protected, the surrounding land is hunted, and shotgun blast sounds can travel long distances, but so can they(deer), so I am hoping they don't wander into this unprotected land and wind up on some egomaniacs wall as a "trophy". From what I have been told, buck meat is garbage, so if a hunter takes a buck, its for his rack, which is ultimately the most selfish "prize" in all of nature, since they throw away the carcass and keep the head. Oh, but their argument is that they do it for us, the people, and it is a service for keeping down the deer population, which in turn, creates less car accidents . Yeah, right! Although that is ultimately true, its not why they are hunting. Oops, sorry, I am stepping off my soap box now...enjoy the photos!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Bunch O Bucks

It was a great morning Saturday, going to my favorite spot for bucks. The rut season has begun, and from taking a look at these guys necks, the testosterone flowing thru their veins is quite evident and the ladies are in for a stressful few months.
I saw 5 different bucks, and was all excited for who I might meet on sunday, but didn't see even one. I did see a bald eagle though, so sunday was not a total loss, even though it was perched too far in the distance for a decent shot. The cool thing I did witness, was a doe chasing a buck ( photo of leaping buck). Typically, its the buck who won't leave the doe alone. Bucks can smell a doe going into estress and follow/chase her until she is ready (which could take days/weeks), or she gets away. But watching the reverse situation happen in front of me was very strange. She was ready for him, but he didn't want her. Hmmm... Bucks try to mate with as many as they can, and create a harem of girls that stay with him for protection from other bucks, and... they are also his own protection from hunters and other predators, using them as lookouts/sentries. Smart!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Just Another Rant from Hannibal the Disgruntled Consumer

My adorable, significant other, "Cuttidad" ordered a gift for me in advance for my birthday (Dec 14). Cutti wanted to give me this gift before we left on vacation to Costa Rica. I would need a flash in the rainforest, as the canopy would cast shadows throughout, and to capture the many creatures that live within, I would have to depend on something other than my standard flash which isn't up to par for long ranges. With all that in mind, my research led me to the Canon 430EX Speedlight. The best price was at "Express Camera" on the net. Cutti orders the flash, and then (of course) has to call the company for confirmation. Express says that they have an even better flash, and that all the 430 owners are upgrading to this new digital flash. It has features that the 430 doesn't have and it is formatted for digital cameras, unlike the 430, so the accuracy is superior. Sounds great! The price was just a few dollars more, and if I am not happy, I have 7 days to return it. Sounds reasonable! O.K., lets get this one. I write down the make number, and jump on the net, after the order. I can't find any reviews on this new flash. Hmmm, must be extremely new, since no one has reviewed it. I am not feeling so great about this anymore. All I want is some confirmation that what I am about to recieve is worthy of the price and the justification that it is indeed as good as, or better than the 430. We wait for UPS to deliver, so the testing can begin, since I only have 7 days. It arrives, and seems to function properly, but the testing is limited to short distances. This flash does have a zoom function, but the zoom is maxed out at 150mm. Extra long distance shots would be void, and I never really expected a flash to shoot so far, thats kinda ridiculous. Hopefully when we are in the jungle, the sloths, toucans, monkeys, hummingbirds, poison dart frogs, scarlet macaws, and hundreds of varieties of bird species will be kind enough to introduce themselves at close range.
Anyway, after recieving the product, I find a web address and discover that Amazon sells this beauty for $160 less than what Cutti just paid. Immediately, we want to send it back. I call customer service for the RMA number that you need to return merchandise and speak with a guy I shall name "Dick".
The conversation went like this:

me: I would like an RMA number.
Dick: What are you returning?
me: The 942 flash I purchased on the 22nd.
Dick: This is a great flash ma'am, why would you return it?
me: I don't like it.
Dick: Did you try it?
me: Yes, and I don't like it.
Dick: You tried it.-What camera did you try it on?
me: Canon Digital Rebel
Dick: Well I can give you $60 off and you can keep it instead of sending it back which will cost you more than what you bought it for.
me: Ummm, no, I have 7 days to return it for a full refund
Dick: I will give you store credit (interrupted by me)
me: No, No, No, No, No, I don't want store credit, I want a refund, can I have the RMA number?
Dick: I'm not going to give you an RMA number until you tell me why you don't like the flash.
me: I don't have to tell you why I don't like the flash, I would like to speak to your manager.
Dick: I am the manager
me: I would like to speak to someone over you.
Dick: There is no one over me
me: Really? What is your name?
Dick: Henry
me: Whats your last name?
Dick: Eefelt
me: Spell that.
Dick: E-e-f-e-l-t
me: So if I call back and ask(interruption from Dick)
Dick:Could you hold please..(click)
I am on hold for over 2 minutes and start to think he is not coming back. Then, the line gets kicked into the system intro, and I knew he ran from Big Bad Me. I hung up the phone, and realized that every one of my co workers heard the entire conversation. I then, chose to explain the whole thing to them but it wasn't enough for my blood pressure to let off steam, it probably got me even more worked up. I wanted justice. I wanted to know if Henry was this dicks real name. Could he be that stupid? I called up and asked for him, and the operater put me through. I hung up. I am shocked. He was that stupid. I then called back to speak with a manager. This guy was also a guy I shall call Dick. I explained that I wanted an RMA number and he must have taken notes from Henry. He asks me why I wanted to return such a great flash. I explained that I didn't like it, and he said, did you try it? (here we go again) FAST-FORWARD THRU ALL THE NONSENSE: I told him I honestly didn't like how I was treated, and that I could get this flash for $160 less at Amazon. He said fine, I can give you an RMA number but it will cost you $36 for using and returning it. It is now an "open box" item. Plus, the postage to ship it and I am already out $10 for the shipping to me in the first place. He would knock off $100 to settle this right now. I was done. I didn't want to fight any more, so I took the deal. Whether it was the right choice is still pending...All I know is, if I have 1 piece of advice to internet consumers out there, just do your research, and stick to your original decision. These scammers are hard sellers and push products that have huge markups, verses the item you want to buy with a lower markup. Don't let them sell you something because they say it is better. If you are unsure, hang up and research this new item, then call back. Oh, and don't order from New Jersey. The salesmen are all named Dick! Remember the warranty company I had to deal with for my broken camera? New Jersey! Cuttidad, Thank you for my flash. Don't let the dicks taint your gift to me.