Bird brained stories!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

So, I cheated a bit....

This weekend was the Festival of Owls in Houston, Minnesota. Nothing else like it anywhere. My husband and I went last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so we were looking forward to it this year.

Friday night was banquet night. Dining with fellow birders is always fun. Like any obsession, most of the "outside world" just doesn't get it, but kindred spirits do. Partway through dinner, Greg Munson of the Quarry Hill Nature Center came in, having checked a banding station he'd set up not too far away. He'd netted a Saw-Whet Owl. Already I was wishing I'd brought my camera with me, but I'd thought, 'photos of people eating, big whoop.' Big mistake.

Greg asked for a couple kids to help him be extra hands and better eyes to read band information. Two teenage girls stepped up to help. As the little bird was weighed and measured, everyone there enjoyed the close looks at him. As Greg prepared to band the owl, he gasped, saying "Karla--he's banded!" The two girls peered in as they helped read off the numbers on the leg band, with the owl peering out coyly in my direction. A Kodak moment, and where was my camera? What's worse, later on when telling friends my sad story, someone commented, "That would be a time when a camera phone would be nice." Oh no! We had ours with us the whole time! It was still fun to be present and witness this whole little drama, which even made our local paper this morning.

This morning. Yes, where the cheating comes in. I'd sent in my registration for the Photographer's Brunch. I'd been looking forward to this chance to photograph several owls in a natural setting, courtesy of Marge Gibson and her education birds from the Raptor Education Group, along with Alice, the ambassador of the Houston County Nature Center. I'd chosen the 9am time for the best light.

Ha. It had started to snow early this morning. Lightly at first, but snow is snow, and that means overcast skies. The snow actually enhanced the photos, as you'll see. I stepped out of my car to discover I was way outclassed as far as my set-up. The other three photographers had mongo professional lenses with great tripods and Wimberley heads. Some had even brought perches they created from tree branches and the like. Auxiliary flash. Wow. I travel light. High end amateur digital camera, 100-400mm secondary manufacturer's lens. Well, the lens does have image stabilization. Though the set-up I use doesn't have the power of the others', it's actually my preference. I stalk my subjects, or hope for happy coincidences while biking, canoeing or cross country skiing. My set-up is an amateur set-up because, well...I'm an amateur!

My first subject was Malcom, who has an injured wing and could not be released into the wild. He is an excellent foster father to chicks that come to the Raptor Center, and was for the most part a calm subject this morning as well. He wanted to check out all the chickadees and woodpeckers active overhead, but posed for the camera, a lovely Barred Owl.

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Next was Wookie, so named because he looks like one! He's a Red Phase Eastern Screech Owl, about 8 months old and now almost fully feathered in adult plumage. He'd suffered liver poisoning as a chick, and even now, his eyes have a slight greenish tinge remaining. His handler told me they kept expecting to find him dead each morning, but he's a fighter and is doing very well. After a bit of consternation being placed on his perch, he was quite calm and seemed to enjoy the snow.

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Next up was the celebrity owl Alice. Alice is a Great Horned Owl who'd fallen out of her nest as a chick, broken her wing and was nursed to health by Marge Gibson. From day one, she was not fearful of humans, and Marge realized she would be a wonderful education bird. Karla Kinstler, naturalist at the Houston County Nature Center, became Alice's keeper and Alice has joined Karla's household, commuting daily to the center with Karla. Alice has the singular distinction of having appeared at a hearing in the Minnesota State Capitol when the issue of protecting Great Horned Owls was up for discussion.

Today she was perched on a branch with Money Creek as backdrop, and though I took some nice shots of her showing those surroundings, this one is my favorite. She looks for all the world like she's hoping to catch a snowflake as it falls from the sky.

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My last subject was Little Bit, a Northern SawWhet Owl like the one that made an appearance at the Friday banquet. Little Bit was having "issues" this morning. He'd heard Alice chirping and Malcom flapping his wings. Those larger owls would have Little Bit for lunch in the wild, and he wasn't too keen to be in the same vicinity, even though the handlers had made good arrangements to keep them all out of sight from one another. Little Bit just knew.

Fortunately, he has a stump in which he can hide during his appearances, and once he'd been given that option, he was quite willing to peek out and see what's up.

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Once I'd finished my turn with each of the birds, I headed into Money Haven for the brunch part of the morning. I enjoyed dining with a local fellow and Laura Erickson. We had a grand time discussing the worsening weather, the Cubs, birding experiences and the trials of raising teenagers. I am not ashamed to say I cheated on these photos. Part of my cost goes to various conservation programs that benefit owls. Perhaps my "cheating" this morning will help maintain habitat for wildlife, so that I may one day have true wild photo encounters with owls. I'm thankful to the Festival of Owls for giving me this wonderful morning, but even more thankful that they are doing the work of educating and raising awareness of these beautiful predators.


  • Wow -- *gorgeous* shots of *gorgeous* birds, Gwyn. I'm jealous!!!!!

    By Blogger Bay in TN, at 6:56 PM  

  • I'm not a birder (as evidenced by my SawWhet pun!) but I love your photos.
    They reminde me of a book series my DH, children and I have been reading, Guardians of Gahool, I'm sure you have heard about them. This is where most of my owl information comes from.

    By Blogger SageHen, at 7:44 PM  

  • All great shots, but love that head in a hole!

    By Blogger Duncan, at 2:33 AM  

  • What wonderful shots!

    I really enjoy all of your Owls !Your meeting sounds really special!

    We are hearing the Eastern Screech owls here most nights but haven't yet identified the other owl calls

    When we lived in the Texas Panhandle we had Burrowing owls in the field just across from our home.

    Thanks so much for sharing
    (thanks also for the visit to my blog and your comments)

    By Blogger Endment, at 6:36 AM  

  • "Amateur" and "professional" are far better used as descriptions of attitude and accomplishment rather than equipment. Your photos and attitude towards your subjects say "professional" to me.

    By Anonymous pohanginapete, at 4:49 PM  

  • Wonderful work, Gwyn. I just loved that photo of Little Bit, which is also my granddaughter's nickname (yes, teenagers do grow up eventually and then you get to the fun part). I'm sure you know that the word "amateur" means one who does it for love--and it sure shows in your photography. Thanks for sharing.

    By Anonymous Home Bird, at 8:09 PM  

  • Wonderful pics, Gwyn! I love the green eyes on that screech owl.

    By Anonymous Mike, at 9:39 AM  

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