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Saturday, February 7, 2015

2015 Starts Off with a Bang: Snowy Owl and Rough-legged Hawk plus Snow Bunting

[SE Michigan. January 2015]

What better way to begin the year than getting a couple of Lifers? Better still when one of the species is the highly desirable and rarely seen Snowy Owl.

Tempted by the prospect of seeing this iconic winter visitor, this blogger joined an Oakland Audubon Society (OAS) trip to Pointe Mouillee SGA in Southeast Michigan with full knowledge that this would mean braving the inhuman, frigid, temperatures that characterize the stark and unforgiving Michigan winter.

However, true to the worn cliche' "no pain, no gain", hardship in the field is often a prerequisite to success in species observation. And, the results from the OAS outing, though not voluminous in quantity, are nevertheless noteworthy because of the excellence in species observed:
  • Snowy Owl
  • Rough-legged Hawk
  • Snow Bunting
  • Eastern Bluebird
We start with the Owl:

Snowy Owl seen at Pt. Mouillee
Snowy Owl is a global raptor found in the arctic fringes of North America, Europe and Asia. As our only white true owl (Barn Owls aren't "true" owls), identification of this species cannot be said to pose a challenge to even the most recklessly casual of observers. Juveniles will show darker barring while adult males are purer white.

Snowy Owl seen at Pt. Mouillee
A fellow participant on the Field Trip confided that a week earlier he had seen 5 Snowy Owls at close quarters at Pt. Mouillee. Evidently, the Owls had now dispersed and were much more skittish. During this excursion, it was a minor miracle that the Trip Leader sighted the owl at all -- not an easy feat to discern a whitish shape against an unbroken sea of white at a mile away!

Elation at getting a lifer in the Snowy Owl would soon redouble when a buzzard alighted on a nearby tree. The paler head, lack of pronounced white mottling to the back are signs that this is a pale-morph Rough-Legged Hawk:

Rough-legged Hawk seen at Pt. Mouillee

In flight, other marks to look for are: the dark-eyeline, white base to the tail:

.. and note the "wrist patches" visible on the undersides of the wings:

Rough-legged Hawk seen at Pt. Mouillee

The Rough-legged Hawk, like the Snowy Owl, is another winter visitor to Michigan -- but our guests from the Arctic are not restricted to raptors -- they include passerines as well. Indeed, our next species, the Snow Bunting is a delightful songbird that can be seen at this time of year:

Snow Bunting (male) seen at DNR Point
The Snow Bunting is one of 6 species belonging to the Longspur family.  It was earlier classified with the New World sparrows.

Snow Bunting (female) seen at DNR Point
Snow Buntings are another species with a global distribution and their populations are healthy.

Snow Bunting (male) seen at DNR Point

We end with a thrush: a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds observed feeding in the bare trees:

This beautiful thrush can brighten up any wintry day with its orange breast, white belly and electric blue back and head.

Eastern Bluebird seen at Crosswinds Marsh

While every moment in the Field holds the prospect of reward, the sighting of a Lifer not only fulfills every birder's quest for the new but also deepens the thrill of discovery.


France Paulsen said...

Your pics are great! I enjoyed looking at the contrast that the snow provides for the Bluebirds and the starkness of the Snow Bunting. I don't brave those harsh winters anymore, so my sightings will continue to be virtual for the time being. Happy Birding.

Bob Pelkey said...

Quite an exhilarating report, Hemant. It's unfortunate that you had to be subjected to the subarctic conditions for the effort. Congratulations on observation of your life birds. It was additionally interesting to follow your link for Pointe Mouillee SGA where I found the answer to what SGA means, and how to pronounce Mouillee. I was unable to determine the location and meaning of DNR Point. I don't think the appearance of sunshine with the bunting images assured warmer conditions as the cloudless days in SW Florida this week will be the coldest. Balmy conditions in comparison to yours for sure. Certainly missing a report of Snowy Owl in Florida this year.

Digital Plume Hunter said...

Hi Bob -- DNR is Michigan's Dept of Natural Resources and they maintain a field office at Harrison Township known locally as DNR Point. It is an eBird Hotspot and attracts a variety of good species.