It is with some sadness that I must admit the purely fun part of my thesis research at Boise State University’s Raptor Biology program is now deceased. I ask: what could be more enjoyable than standing outside all day counting birds of prey? Unfortunately the only answer I have for that is writing, writing, and more writing! Perhaps I am being a bit dramatic, as this is the part of my research experience where I find out exactly what all that winter raptor data I collected means. I will continue updating this blog with my research findings, and other fun tidbits (such as a photographic ID to aging and sexing Rough-Legged Hawks!) as they come along.
The Snake River Canyon. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
For those who don’t already know, I will eventually be looking to see how winter raptor numbers have changed in southwest Idaho over the last 20 years, and how these changes have been affected by habitat and climate change. Until then, here are the raw count totals from November 15, 2011 – February 28, 2012 inside the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. And some photographic highlights from the last month and a half!
Figure 1. Raw raptor species totals for the 2011-12 winter in the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. Northern Shrikes are considered an "honorary raptor" in my book.
Adult Female Rough-Legged Hawk. Photo by Robert Miller.
Adult Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by Robert Miller.
Juvenile Rough-Legged Hawk and Adult Golden Eagle. Note the size difference. Photo by Yozora Tadehara.
Juvenile Rough-Legged Hawk. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
I am happy to announce that our feature length documentary about California Condors, “Scavenger Hunt” will be premiering on the opening night of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) in Ithaca, NY on Thursday, March 29th. Choosing this festival as the site for our premiere screening was an easy decision because of my personal connection with the Finger Lakes region. I attended Ithaca College as an undergraduate and was dramatically influenced by the films that I saw at FLEFF. I graduated from Ithaca College with a double major in Environmental Studies and Cinema/Photography, and FLEFF provided me with the opportunity to see exactly how these two interests could be effectively combined.
The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival is unique among wildlife and environmentally themed festivals in that it places a strong focus on community development. The films that screen at FLEFF address environmental issues from a uniquely honest perspective that fits very well with our mission at Wild Lens. Our goal with “Scavenger Hunt” has always been to address the issue of lead poisoning from spent ammunition from the perspective of the hunting community. We understand that without community support very little can be accomplished, and this is why the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival is the perfect venue for the world premiere of “Scavenger Hunt: An Unlikely Union.”
** The following is the second of a two part guest blog series written after Wild Lens board member Karen May returned from a 3-week trip to New Zealand **
Janine and I booked our flight to New Zealand in October 2011 and by the time December rolled around, we had only a rental car and a general sense of the track we were going to take on our 16-night journey across both the North and South Islands. While Janine was armed with a bird book and bird sighting aspirations, my goals for the trip were more geared towards seeing the picturesque New Zealand landscapes, embarking on some adventure trips, and enjoying the friendly culture of the New Zealanders. Well deliver, New Zealand did.
Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Karen May.
In just over two weeks, we logged some serious miles (correction, kilometers!) in our Toyota Camry. We landed in Auckland after an unexpected nearly day-long layover in Fiji. Bypassing the largest city of New Zealand completely, we spent our 4 days in the North Island in Lake Taupo, Hawkes Bay, and Wellington (the capital). After ferrying across to Marlborough Sounds in the South Island (where we spent the majority of our time), we spent time in quaint Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park, drove south through the rugged West Coast towards Queenstown, over to Te Anau/Milford Sound, and finally, drove up the east coast from Dunedin to the earthquake-damaged city of Christchurch. And along the way, we ate more than our fair share of greasy fish & chips, learned the difference between a flat white and long black coffee, camped for several nights in both private ‘holiday parks’ (bonus: showers!) and at more-secluded and picturesque D.O.C. campsites, and even mastered the art of driving on the left side of the road (I know Janine is somewhere out there smirking at our complete inability to learn what side our turn signal was on: our windshield wipers got plenty of use, with or without actual rain).
Kayaking Abel Tasman National Park. Photo by Karen May.
New Zealand, particularly the South Island, is well known as a mecca for adventure sports & adrenaline rushes. While Janine & I could not muster much desire to bungee jump off a bridge or repel down a tall building, we were able to find plenty of adventures that showcased New Zealand’s stunning beauty. One highlight was a two-day kayaking tour of Abel Tasman National Park. Abel Tasman is the stuff of postcards – white sand beaches & clear blue-green water. During our relaxed paddle, we saw New Zealand’s largest colony of fur seals and plenty of birds (including a wood pigeon that nearly took off my head!), and camped near a beach on a portion of the Abel Tasman Track/Great Walk. (There are several ‘tracks’ or ‘great walks’ throughout the country that allow you to escape the tourists for about 3 to 5 days, hiking through and camping out in otherwise inaccessible spots. Had Janine and I started our trip planning early & had more time to travel, this would have been high on our list). Other notable adventures included hiking on Fox Glacier, jetboating through a river canyon in Queenstown, a boat tour through breathtaking Milford Sound, jumping in various degrees of cold water, and finding various day hikes – Fox River Cave was particular rewarding. Unfortunately, incessant rain caused us to miss the not-to-miss Tongariro Alpine day hike, but it will be top on our list for the next trip!
As a foodie and wine and beer drinker, I often travel in search of great cuisine. I knew that New Zealand was not a country to visit for the great food. British fare – fish and chips, Indian take-outs, as well as pizza – were predominant. However, we happened upon some wonderful Mediterranean-inspired meals in Wellington, discovered the remarkably delicious & simple breakfast of eggs, bacon (more like ham), roasted tomato & foccacia bread, enjoyed New Zealand’s famous lamb in the form of lamb shank pizza, and in Havelock, devoured two large bowls of green-lipped mussels. Obviously, as a bit of a wine-o, I planned to taste plenty of New Zealand’s famous Sauvignon Blanc wine. In the Marlborogh region, Janine allowed me to indulge my fantasy of bicycling to several wineries – and finally on a day of sun! I was also pleased with the wine in Hawkes Bay – Pinot Noirs and sweet whites, most notably. Hawkes Bay reminded me a lot of Sonoma, with its rolling hills and smaller wineries. We even tasted at a cidery – and were pleased to discover that 10:30 am is not too early for a cider buzz, thank you very much; nearly every bar & restaurant had an apple cider on tap. New Zealand is definitely a country of beer drinkers, and the local brews were also fantastic.
New Zealand Cidery. Photo by Karen May.
I find that when I travel, the one thing that can really make or break a visit to a new country are the people that you meet along the way. While we met several nice travelers –from US, Israel, England, Germany, and more – it was the Kiwis themselves (on the road themselves or at home) that made us fall in love with this friendly, laid-back country. By the end of the trip we had a collection of handwritten notes on napkins, from waiter, winery workers, and more – helping us to find scenic shortcuts, campsites not listed in our guidebooks, and the best places for fresh seafood. Service was always coupled with a smile. A family of famers in the Otago Peninsula, near Dunedin, were gracious enough to put Janine & I up for a night, take us on a tour of some amazing wildlife on their large parcel of land/private beach – yellow eyed penguins, fur seals, and sea lions, oh my – and even get us a little drunk on gin & tonics. New Zealanders are clearly proud of their country and are equally proud to share it with tourists, and as a traveler, this attitude was very much noticed and appreciated. And from friendly small-town farmers to cosmopolitan city-dwellers, one thing that remained true for every New Zealander we met – was their complete devotion to their World Cup winning rugby team, the All Blacks!
Milford Sound, New Zealand. Photo by Janine Harris.
Throughout our exciting adventure, Janine & I experienced plenty of travel mishaps, usual ones – flat tires and long flights delays – and New Zealand-specific ones – an earthquake in Christchurch and several bites from the all too friendly South Island sand flies. But the trip was a winning one and the only regret I have is that we were not able to spend more time to see everything New Zealand had to offer. Janine & I are already planning a 10 year reunion trip – this time, no shorter than a month (per island!) and we will plan in time enough to reserve our spot on a Great Walk. Cheers!
Melanistic Adult Male Northern Harrier. Photo by Rob Miller.
I wanted to quickly update everyone on the reaction we’ve been receiving from experts regarding the dark Northern Harrier Rob Miller, Liz Urban, and I saw last month in Idaho. Rob received an e-mail from Bill Clark, potentially the most experienced raptor identification expert in North America, and author of A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors. Bill says, “About your harrier. It is most certainly an adult male Nothern Harrier and most certainly melanistic.” This is excellent news! While we knew it was a dark harrier, it is always great to get confirmation from an expert in the field. Bill went on to suggest we publish our account, along with some photos of the bird in a short field note, similar to this article published by Chad Olson in 2000. We have not seen this bird again since our first siting, however I will be conducting road surveys next week along the same route where we saw this bird in January. Keeping my fingers crossed!
** The following is the first of a two part guest blog series written after Wild Lens board member Karen May returned from a 3-week trip to New Zealand. This first entry was written by Karen’s longtime friend and birder Janine Harris, who accompanied her on the trip. **
With my Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand packed, I headed off for a sixteen-day road trip in New Zealand with my good friend and Wild Lens Board Member, Karen May. I’ll admit I was a bit unprepared, and was reading the intro to my field guide on my flight from DC to LA, learning there are less than 300 native birds in New Zealand. However, what the island lacked in diversity it makes up with in uniqueness (flash back to island biogeography 101). One reason New Zealand birds are unique is because the islands historically had no mammal predators. This allowed the development of many species of large flightless birds that are ground nesters. The introduction of mammal species to the islands creates a threat to the survival of many of these ground nesters now. Stoats and a possum species native to Australia are two pests that are particular nuisances. Everywhere we traveled on our trip there were poison traps set to trap these pests, and a market has even been created to hunt the possum for their fur to mix with lamb’s wool to create a softer material for knit clothing.
Beautiful New Zealand. Photo by Janine Harris.
My birding goal for our trip was small: I wanted to see 4 types of birds that I knew we had a good chance of encountering on the planned trip: royal albatross, yellow-eyed penguin, Australasian gannets and the kea.
Australasian Gannet breeding colony. Photo by Janine Harris.
Unfortunately, heavy rain made us change course from the planned Tongariro Crossing on the North Island, apparently one of the most beautiful one day hikes in New Zealand, to a little extra time in Napier and Hawks Bay area. This gave me the opportunity to take a last minute Cape Kidnappers tractor led tour to see one of the few land colonies of gannets- a beautiful diving sea bird. A small tractor pulled 40 people on two flatbed platforms along 3 miles of dramatic earthquake shaken cliffs. The tractors left us at the bottom of a steep cliff we needed to climb to get to the breeding gannet colony. I’ve never been to a colony of breeding birds but it was just as I had imagined- loud, pungent and amazing. There were birds flying in for clumsy landings, adults greeting their mates at the nest with a little ‘necking’, adults regurgitating their food for their little ones, and chicks of all sizes from eggs to big fluffy white ‘babies’ that the parents were still unsuccessfully trying to sit on. And all of this activity was right on the edge of a dramatic sheep-spotted cliff over the ocean—definitely a highlight to the trip.
An Australasian Gannet. Photo by Janine Harris.
I had to wait until the end of our trip to spot the last three goal birds, checking off others slowly as we drove south toward Fiordland. Next up was the kea- a large parrot that likes to hang out around people in higher elevations. We took a guided van ride from Te Anau to Mildford Sound, and our guide was confident we would see them on the drive. On the way back, we spotted a few walking awkwardly on the guard rail, hanging out on top of a tour bus and one even pecking at the rubber insulation on the door frame of a car as they are known to do. Even with all the other tourists around trying to get a good photo, it was still great to see a parrot of that size—and to see the dull green bird take off and show its beautiful feathers under the wing. Success on spotting #2!
Our last stop on the way to Christchurch for our flight home was a stop on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin. A friend of mine connected us with his study-aboard advisor’s family for a night’s stay, and a chance to view wildlife on their private shoreline on Cape Saunders. On the way to their home, we made a stop at the royal albatross breeding colony at The Albatross Center, the only albatross breeding colony on the main islands of New Zealand. There were a few albatross flying overhead in the parking lot, and their wingspan is truly impressive. I took a guided tour with the center to see where the birds breed. Only two birds in our view were sitting on nests—not as chaotic as the gannet colony. The highlight was watching one adult wobble to the edge of the cliff, open its wings, take about two running steps to jump off and soar away. The birds need winds to take off because they lack powerful flight muscles, and the wind was in our favor that day.
Royal Albatross about to take flight. Photo by Janine Harris.
Last stop, the McKay’s house and a private beach tour to spot the yellow-eyed penguin. We drove through fields of sheep racing our jeep to the cliff edge for a walk down to the beach. We were greeted by two male sea lions in a heated territorial dispute that was in the background for our hour-long visit. Then we spotted the penguins. One swimming into shore and hobbling up the cliff, and dozens just hanging out on the grassy shoreline. Yellow-eyed penguins are rare and only found in this area of New Zealand and the islands off the coast. This colony of penguins was not shy—they lets us stand right next to them without giving us a second glance. Only one fluffy brown chick showed some fear and ran away to hide. Walking around a private beach watching the penguins and sea lions was a perfect way to end our New Zealand trip.
Yellow-eyed Penguin. Photo by Janine Harris.
Success! All four goal birds seen and photographed on our New Zealand adventure. Final bird count for the trip: 34 birds. Not a very high number but almost all were birds I had never seen before so I was pleased. And you might, like many others, ask—did you see the elusive kiwi? Unfortunately we only saw the human species of Kiwi, but there was evidence that the kiwis are underfoot and crossing the roads…
As many of you already know, the 2011-2012 winter has been a great one for owls. Especially Snowy Owls. I was lucky enough to make it out to Nampa, Idaho on December 31st to see the pair of Snowy Owls that took up residence in an agricultural field for the better part of two months. However, I had yet to see a Snowy Owl during any of my winter raptor surveys in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. That is, until today!
Adult Male Snowy Owl. Nampa, Idaho. Photo by Morgan Peters.
I was approaching one of my point count sites located near Kuna, Idaho in the middle of an agricultural field on the edge of my study area. Too busy locating two American Kestrels, a female Northern Harrier, and an adult Ferruginous Hawk on my way to the point, I almost missed what flushed directly in front of me! Right on top of a boulder pile where my point count site was located a male Ring-Necked Pheasant, along with a Snowy Owl flushed not 20 feet ahead of me out of some tall weeds! The bird immediate flew out of sight, but not before I was able to count it as I clicked my stopwatch on. It happened so fast that I was unable to snap any photos, and I was not able to located the bird again after the 20 minute point count, with limited access to the private land around me. However, I do have several photos here of the Snowy Owls from Nampa, Idaho: courtesy of Morgan Peters!
Adult Male Snowy Owl. Nampa, Idaho. Photo by Morgan Peters.
I thought I would also include some photos of other owls I have seen during the winter months the past two years. These are all Short-Eared Owls, with a few straggling Burrowing Owls. I have seen 7 Short-Eared Owls so far this winter, and saw my first Burrowing Owl on January 31st!
Short-Eared Owl. Photo by Beth Orning-Tschampl.
Short-Eared Owl coming in for a landing. Photo by Neil Paprocki.
Burrowing Owl. Photo by Jeremy Tout.