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Friday, June 29, 2012

Nerdy Birdy: Owl Adventures in Sequoia National Park Day 2

Since we didn't get back to the hotel until well after 3AM we opted to sleep in at least a little this morning. I of course could have slept way past our 10AM meeting time but there was a whole day of fun planned before our second night of owling. Mr. & Mrs. Owlbait had offered to help build owl nest boxes for the research station they were collecting the owl data for. Building anything out of wood and power tools is SO not me but I thought I would go, meet some cool people and try not to get in the way too much. Hey, you never know, I might even be a little helpful.

We were the last of the group to arrive at the research station, an old house on the edge of town converted into a residence for interns and a place to gather, collect and work on data. There were an array of tables sprawled under some large shade trees out back where people were busy cutting, drilling and assembling the owl nest boxes. At first I stayed with Mrs. Owlbait's being introduced to the others in the group and learning about their role in the survey process. After a while I offered to help hold some wood in place so another could drill a hole or cut the wood. In essence I quickly became the helper of a variety of workers.

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THE TEAM WAS HARD AT WORK ASSEMBLING OWL NEST BOXES

Eventually I got promoted up to drill girl. I think I have actually held a drill in my hand 2 times in my life and both of those times I was just handing it to my husband. To say that I am very inexperienced with power tools is a vast understatement but it didn't LOOK hard and everyone was encouraging me to try. The first few minutes I was nervous but after I drilled a few holes I felt like I was getting the hang of it. It really wasn't that hard after all, I was thrilled and send a photo to my husband, my first time ever using a power tool, I was so proud. But then I don't really know what happened, one minute I was drilling and the next I heard a snap. I found that I was holding a drill with a much shorter drill bit than a moment ago. Seems like I snapped a drill bit in half. With only ten minutes of drilling under my belt I got demoted back to just a helper.

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SO HAPPY ONE MOMENT AND THE NEXT UPSET THAT I BROKE THE DRILL BIT

Owl nest boxes I learned generally only last for 5-7 years which makes them expensive and time consuming to maintain and replace. Nest boxes are installed by a large screw into the tree but as the tree grows the nest box splits and breaks apart. However this team included an engineer who devised a box that could in essence grow over time. Instead of using a standard large screw this new box uses a spring screw mechanism that allows the box to grow out with the tree as it expands over the years. The spring screw along with specially devised mesh boarders along the back of the box (that lays against the tree) elongates the nest boxes lifespan from years to decades.

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THE ENGINEER DEMONSTRATING TO THE GROUP HOW THESE NEW BOXES WORK


As we kept working the pile of finished owl nest boxes grew. These boxes are specifically sized for the smaller owls; Flammulated Owls, Northern Saw Whet Owls and Western Screech Owls. Flying squirrels as well as a variety of other animals will also end up using the boxes but they are hoping over time to be able to band and gather more data on the target owls.

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WE WERE ABLE TO FINISH QUITE A FEW

After working outside in the heat for a few hours we were called inside for lunch. Some of the volunteers cooked up a massive amount of chinese food. We all gathered around the large table and I soaked up all the conversations around me. There was a debate over the genius of a bird, there was talk of someones new bird book coming out on the market, there was talk of bill shape differences between a House Finch and a Cassin's Finch and there was talk of making time in the next few days to catch and band the elusive Yellow Billed Coukoo. I was loving being surrounded by such bird experts, people who have a similar passion and who I was learning so much from.

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GATHERED AROUND THE TABLE WITH SOME PRETTY COOL NERDY BIRDERS

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I LOVED ALL THE SCIENTIFIC DECOR THEY HAD AROUND THE RESEARCH STATION LIKE THESE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA BUTTERFLY BOARDS

One of the conversations that particularly caught my ear was about flash lights and owling at night. Apparently I wasn't the only one having a hard time trying to keep a flash light balanced with one hand while using my lens to try and find the owl. Non-photographers also were trying to balance their flashlights in one hand and their binoculars in the other. The engineer rigged a simple system with his binoculars using a small flashlight and some heavy duty stick on velcro. I was intrigued, it was the exact simple solution I was looking for. After chatting with him for a while he offered to give me his extra flashlight and some extra velcro he had in the car. I was ecstatic.

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SOMETIMES YOU MEET THE NICEST PEOPLE

His ability to find simple solutions to problems reminded me a lot of my dad. The flashlight that he found was remarkably small with a very strong light beam. I think with a flashlight any larger it wouldn't have worked out as well. He stuck the fuzzy velcro half around the whole flashlight body and a sticky square placed on the edge of my 500mm lens hood. After a remarkably short time he had the setup rigged up on my big lens. Immediately the benefits were noticeable but I will be really excited to try it out when we go owling tonight.

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REMARKABLY SIMPLE RIG TO ATTACH A FLASHLIGHT ON MY CAMREA LENS

Shortly after we left the research center to go meet Mr. & Mrs. Owlbaits friends for dinner. To my surprise the night just got better and better. Seems like the friend we were meeting was none other than John Dunn, author of the National Geographic Birds Sixth Edition book. I am a relative baby birder compared to the company we have been hanging out with today. John was super duper nice. Not only does he know so much about birds and wildlife he also was able to explain things in a way that I being a new birder could understand. I think I learned more about birds in the past 24 hours than I have in the past 24 months!

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JOHN DUNN SIGNS MR. & MRS. OWLBAIT'S BOOK

After dinner we all piled into the car to make the long long drive out into the mountains. One thing that I have learned is that if you want to see an owl other than a Barn or a Great Horned than you have to go FAR into the woods. Winding roads, rough terrain, a true wilderness is where we were going. Tonight there were only four survey points, as opposed to the nine we did the night before, so I was excited that a good majority of our night would be dedicated to owling for fun.

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Once we got to our destination all was silent. Its erie how silent the forest is at night and how trained your ears have to be in order to find the owls. After the survey was finished we made few stops and played both the Flammulated Owl and the Northern Saw Whet owl calls. Sometimes however you don't find what you are calling. In this case just as we were getting back in the car to go to another location John heard the hiss of a Spotted Owl. After about 5 minutes of playing the calls and searching the trees we found her. A female spotted owl staring down at us from a gnarled tree.

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SPOTTED OWL

Although I have seen this owl in captivity this is the first time every I have seen it in the wild. This is a new owl I can cross off my Nerdy Birdy List LINK. I used the new flashlight attachment and it seemed to work out really well. I am finding that the 5D Mark III, the 500mm lens, a sturdy tripod and a good flashlight is making a kick butt owl setup. She swirled around us for a good 15 minutes constantly calling and screeching at the recording Mrs. Owlbait was playing. After getting good looks for so long we quietly left. The owls need to hunt and we got our time with her.

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SPOTTED OWL

It is really tiring to owl. We owl from the road, stopping and getting out of the car when the habitat looks right. On any given night we might get into and out of the car 20 or more times. Not a huge deal most of the time but for me I have to setup and take town my photography rig every single time. Most of the time we don't hear anything when we play the calls except the silence of the forest around us. It can get frustrating especially for someone impatient like me.

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GORGEOUS NIGHT WITH AN ALMOST FULL MOON

There were a few times I thought about just leaving my camera in the car until we were sure that there was an owl in the area but owls are unpredictable and I would hate to miss an opportunity because I wasn't ready. The reward of carting that heavy equipment around is when you get to hear the call of a target owl and when that target owl cooperates in getting its photo taken. Aside from the Spotted Owl Mr. & Mrs. Owlbait were also able to call in a Flammulated Owl for another great look. At only 7 inches tall this little guy is hard to find in the pitch dark, all you have to locate him is his low call.

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FLAMMULATED OWL


Although there isn't much other wildlife to be seen in the dead of the night there are a few creatures out. The bats in particular are swooping and squeaking in the air. It is impossible for me to get a good photo of them. We also heard the occasional chirp of the flying squirrels. Mrs. Owlbait located one way up in a dead tree for us. A lifer for both John and I.

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FLYING SQUIRREL

You can even find some little surprises on the road. We pulled over and turned back to investigate something that we had passed sitting in the center of the road. We got out and crept closer to find a little mole hanging out frozen on the yellow painted lines. He didn't seem to know what to do but he stayed long enough for me to get a few shots before darting off into the shrubs. 



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PROBABLY NOT THE BEST PLACE FOR A MOLE TO HANG OUT


This is how owls get most of their injuries. The owls sit on telephone poles watching the road for small rodents. Rodents are drawn to roads by the trash people through out their windows. Once they owls spot a rodent they swoop in with all their focus on their prey. Often the owls then get hit by cars before the people driving even realize there is an owl there.

Two amazing owls in one night. Owling is such a high!

2 comments:

paul peggy zeus said...

lol about the mole, at least he's between the yellow lines knowing you can't cross! haha. LOVE the owl photos. You really got to see quite a few of them. Good job!!

Anonymous said...

Sequoia owls are one of the loveliest creature I've seen in Kings Canyon park. Great job guys! When I visited Sequoia Resort park, I've seen a lot of birders gathered in the area.

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