"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

SNOW Falls for Conservation!


 After weeks of teasing from friends to the north who've been seeing snowy owls perched like pigeons on barn roofs, tractors and everywhere else it seemed, I was growing antsy. Jealousy and envy began to sink in as report after report--many of them on Facebook, extolled the beauty of the great white owls from the arctic. Sure, snowies wander south of their ice-bound tundra haunts on occasion but this irruption (either caused by a dearth of lemming snacks which cause the owls to search southward for food--or a surplus of lemmings that cause a surplus of owls which then wander to find elbow room) was historic. SNOW (the bird-brained acromym for SNowy OWl) was falling everywhere except where I was. 

And then it happened. On Saturday December 7 at 3:44 pm I got the Facebook message from graduate student and friend, Zach Miller. "I'm looking at a snowy owl in Brevard right now. come up!" The message gave the magical address and I pondered my action for a moment--a millisecond really--  and then abandoned the football games I so religiously watch on Saturday afternoon. I asked my almost adult son Colby if he wanted to adventure with me in search of the "Harry Potter owl" and he too abandonned everything to see the magical critter. We bid our adieus  and we were off!  

Over the river and through the woods is an understatement. It was over the lake--past places like Booger Branch Road, Down Shady Grove, onto the old Cherokee path now called Highway 11 and a sharp left onto the snakey highway they call 178--up and down, around and around--through Rocky Bottom, past Scatterbrain's hole in the wall mountain saloon (they stab people there--allegedly), beyond the Horse Pasture over the Little Eastatoe and into NC. I was breaking all kinds of land speed records (and laws) trying to beat the night speeding through the wild wonderful place called Jocassee.  Colby managed to hold lunch down as I sped around hairpin curves and did my best Grand Prix imitation--as much as one can in a Honda Element. As we grew closer I imagined the throngs of birders that would be there--salivating over the sighting. As the nameless robo-techno chick on my smartphone told me where to turn I could see twenty to thirty cars--packed tight into an instant parking lot. It was easy to see that this was the place. It was gonna be a feeding frenzy. But then there were only a few birders I could see gathered out at the edge of a fence line. All those cars were just junkers. Standard stuff for a working farm. There were maybe only a half dozen birders there. Most of the oglers had long since left and I could see the destiny of my desire glowing-- shining white like a ghost on a pile of slash in the midst of a huge field. I almost went head over heels in the muddy muck trying to get there. After collecting myself--pretending to be calm--I was within a couple hundred yards. Eureka! Satisfaction at 30x! Yep. There it sat. Snowy white with yellow eyes blinking and for all intents and purposes--in my backyard.
This Snowy Owl ventured south into the mountains of Western North Carolina

 Okay. Back up. Stop the presses So I stopped chasing rarities a few years ago. I confessed that a few blogs back. Why do you ask, then, would a dyed in the wool-bird-brain like me stop chasing the winged wanderers I love so much? Well, it's not because I stopped loving birds. Nope. It's because there was a change in the way I began to see birds after so many years of intense birding that often took me far away to see neat birds. I'd see the bird, list the birds and then go. In all those birds I listed I left with a longer life list but something was missing. I think the transformation came as I began to think more and more about the conservation side of things. Many of the rarities are sadly doomed in their misdirected wandering but hundreds --even thousands--will seek them out, just to get the tick.  I didn't just want to see more birds I wanted to know more about the birds I was seeing. The SNOW Colby and I ogled on that farm in western NC actually turned out to be woefully malnourished. It was captured and placed into a rehab the day after we went to see it. Fortunately it's recuperating in the hands of capable wildlife rehabilitation professionals. That evening as we watched the ghostly owl fly from slash pile to barn roof to fence post and then out of sight with the falling night we wondered if it would continue to be seen or where other SNOWs might be.

I was inspired by social media and the amazing sighting of the southward bound snowies to put on my chaser's boots again. How could I resist a yellow-eyed, white as snow, razor -taloned visitor from the far north? My son Colby, hardly a hard-core birder,  couldn't resist the chance to see a creature he held dear from his Harry Potter obsession. So we should all wonder whither the wanderers wandering while they are among us. Take advantage of the southern penetration to get to know them better. How do the snowy owls we scramble to see move and behave? Do they simply seek out the nearest open space that looks tundra-like? Is it prey abundance they seek? How does human interaction impact their movement and behavior?  Just as social media has enabled the bird-obsessed to communicate in rapid fire fashion to help us find the rare things here and there, technology has advanced that will hopefully allow us to answer the questions about snowy owls and other wayward wanderers.

And yes--there are folks asking such questions. Ornithologists and conservationists are on the move themselves doing "rocket science" sorta stuff to see where SNOWs go.  And then they're dedicated nature-noticers like Carrie Samis, Education Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. She's one of the faithful bird-brained friends who kept me and the rest of the world connected to the snowy goings-on via Facebook. She's super stoked about connecting the conservation dots with SNOW! She's a skilled naturalist and communicator who knows how to connect the dots so that social media and science come together for conservation. Check out this awesome post as she shares her excitement over the recent irruption of snowy owls and how science and social media are making a difference for  birding and conservation! Here's the link to Carrie's Blog! 


So 'tis the season! Get out and see the SNOWs while you can! Bird conservation is depending on you! Tweet that!


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Day's Musings on Migration

Out this morning for a wizzbang warbler wander...
So what did we find? A golden-winged blinging like a tricked out chickadee. A palette of hyperactive redstarts painting the hackberries. A few limey-green Chestnut-sided's cock-tail sure of being cute-- and a short-tailed Tennessee--or maybe two. A few tiny parulas paraded through the trees and a wormy wearing the finest browns stopped longed enough to please. There was a lemon yellow-hooded that blazed like the sun--and by 8:15 y'all the warbler-ing work was done...

Charlie Harper's "Mystery of the Missing Migrants"

As the day closes --evening sun slipping--slipping to somewhere low. There's a skulking thrush whispering in a woodland--somewhere waiting for the first stars to show. A world of winged wanderers will soon begin to stir--turning attention southward-- trusting wings and what they know. A mysterious magnet will direct them through the dark-some pull we don't possess --I marvel at the feathered bundles that pass this arduous test...
Ponder deeply the migrant streams -passing o'er as you dream --and wake to hope the courageous thrush finds forest refuge--big and dark and deep.