I recently went to Chilver Lake, looking for the birds in the area. While we were there, we found a bunch of Tiger Salamanders. Above is a regular size one, and below, well, you can see for yourself. It’s huge, but all the signs point towards it being a baby!
“Owls are fascinating to us because they are simultaneously foreign and familiar.” So states Dr. James R. Duncan on page 6 of his book The Complete Book of North American Owls. He goes on to explain the biology and unusual features of North American Owls. Further into the book, he has a complete profile of every known species of Owl in North America. The result is an all round excellent guide which is essential to any Owling expedition, whether diurnal or nocturnal.
The introduction is informative, but manages to convey its large amount of information in an interesting way. Mainly on the biology and ‘special adaptations’ of owls, this document starts off with captivating sentences that show the relationships between owls and humans. On page 6, he states it well and plainly. “When owls and humans meet, it is sometimes hard to know which is more fascinated, startled, and sometimes even frightened.” Once he has the reader in his grasp, he progresses to the more scientific parts. He explains the intricate mysteries of owls and their amazing arsenal of survival skills. This entirety is built upon the excellent images that are not simply pictures of owls, but relevant and comprehension-aiding parts of the book.
This brings me to my next point: photography.
The photos are all clear, and have the proper photo credits. The more common species have multiple photos, at least one of both adult and immature, while the lesser known species may have only one or two. The photo choices and placement fits and does not get in the way, but helps with understanding the species. I did, however, notice one slight error: the front page photos from the Northern Pygmy Owl and the Mountain Pygmy Owl had been swapped! Apart from this, everything was exceptional for all the pictures.
Most owl species in the book have 1 to 4 pages of detailed descriptions and photos. On each owl’s front page, the Owl’s common and Latin names are top of the sheet, precise range maps and a general physical summarization lie beside the text. In the writing itself, the primary information is the song, range, food, and nesting. Behaviour and nesting habits are also mentioned. I found that the author tried to insert some interesting little pieces of info that may not help with identification, but are interesting nonetheless, including quotes such as this: “It [the Northern Hawk Owl] roosts within forested stands at night, and has been seen flying for such cover from open areas when Great-horned Owls emerge at dusk to start hunting.” (page 128).
The book is well organised, a 25cm tall, 19cm wide, 2cm thick volume, the font is easy to read and a reasonable size. It is not so much a field guide as a home guide, in my opinion, meaning that I would keep it at home and read it there rather than take it into the field (although if you’re going owling, take it when you can, it would be very useful).
To conclude, the pictures are good, the writing is very informative, and you can tell that the author has made an effort to keep it interesting. All in all, Dr. James R. Duncan has succeeded in making one of the best and most influential owl guides that I have ever read.
The next day, we hit the road to the last stop before Denver. For the first few hours, we saw very little that we hadn’t already seen. And then, just before lunch, my Dad pulled over to photograph a smallish, black bird. At the time, I didn’t think to much of it – it was probably just a Brewer’s or a Grackle. Nine days and many photo examinations later had me thinking differently. It was a Lark Bunting!
Nothing more happened for awhile, but when things did happen, they brought numbers! Birds filled the landscape, darting in and out from shrubs, perching on wires and generally making it clear that they were there. There was no apparent flock, but the birds were obviously all the same species. Speckled breasts, yellow eyes with black pupils and down-curving bills all amounted up to Sage Thrasher.
The thrasher domination lasted almost until the little lake that we had scheduled a stop at. Saratoga Wetlands was a huge bird attraction in the parched scrubland that surrounded it. There were Barn Swallows, Redheads, Marsh Wrens and many others among them. In the little shelter over looking the area, a Barn Swallow’s nest had fallen, killing two out of the four fledgelings in it. The living two were huddled by the wall, obviously older than their dead siblings.
High above us, American Pelicans circled in perfect formation.
Our campsite that night was supposed to be a flat one, and my mother didn’t want to be cold again, so we stayed in a motel. Wednesday was the day that we departed. Stopping at Laramie for lunch, I noticed that a small creek ran by, just through the large, leafy trees. Determined to find an entrance, I scanned the row of trees and soon found an opening. The creek was bigger than I had first thought, with a whole load of Common Grackles and Cliff Swallows around. Two Western Wood-Pewees called out and some American Robins flew through the afore-mentioned trees.
We had tickets for a show at Red-rocks Ampitheatre that night, so I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than, maybe, House Sparrows – wrong again! As everybody was taking their seats, I noticed some large, swallow-like birds flying around the cliffs. Further examination proved that they were White-throated Swifts.
Every second year, my summer vacation consists of three months of planning, packing and worrying followed by two weeks of sheer bliss – or sheer birding in my case! This year, we had our eyes set on the States. I was excited, for we would be getting into Western Scrub-Jay territory, among others. We started off by camping on the very edge of Canada, in Writing On Stone Provincial Park. Writing On Stone was not a great distance away, but the wildlife was already strong. Red-tailed hawks soared, and Red-winged Blackbirds piped from the reeds.
We were driving along after a long stretch with not much to offer, when out of the long grasses a small, sandpiper-like head poked. My dad screeched to a halt and I pulled out my binoculars just in time to see a second one apear. Both birds had long, down-curving bills and white eyerings around black eyes – Long-billed Curlew!
Almost immediately afterwards, a herd of Prong-horn Antelope was spotted.
The day was almost over, but not before we saw a Spotted Towhee! The next day, we set out early to cross the border, but I managed to squeeze in some time for a walk in the morning. My little sister Lucy tagged along, asking what every single bird was – although she got a Brown-headed Cowbird right! And then, I saw it – a Brown Thrasher! Ordering Lucy to keep an eye on the bird, I tore back to the campsite for my father and a camera. He came willingly, and we got some good pictures of it.
After seeing the Thrasher, we set off for Great Falls, Montana. At Great Falls, we had lunch near a windswept river where the birds – other than a few Cliff Swallows and California Gulls – chose to huddle together on a partially submerged log by the far shore. There were Double-crested Cormorants, Canada Geese and American Pelicans, but most of all, there were gulls. There was also a large, furry mammal on the closer bank – Groundhog!
From that point on, we saw nothing but a few Mountain Bluebirds, it seemed. And so it was that I was absorbed in my book when they appeared: two Ferruginous Hawks shone from a powerline tower on the right. “Ethan! Look!,” my Dad whispered. My head snapped up so hard that my neck screamed with pain. (OK, slight exaggeration…)
“Do you think they’re Ferrugies?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m sure of it.” he replied.
Half an hour later, we pulled into a lake pull-out to stretch our legs. I swept the lake with my binoculars and found a flock of American Avocets, a few cormorants and a large tern – It remains unidentified, but I’m working on IDing it (I think it’s a Caspian). By the time we reached the campsite, it was almost too late to do anything. We were camped by a lake though, and there were a few grebes on it – Westerns. My Dad got some good photos of one.
We stayed at that place for three nights, although we had to pick up our tent and carry it to the next-door site once! One night, my Dad and I decided to go searching for a possible Boreal Owl I was sure I’d heard the night before. We walked down to a probable place, and the Owl called, seeming to dare us to find it. We followed it around a bend where it stopped and went quiet. We searched fruitlessly for minutes until a deep, ominous growl came from out of the brush on our right – Grizzly Bear. There was nothing else it could be, as foxes, martens, coyotes and all the other smaller predators around could not even get close to anything that deep.
The next day we left for the next place where we saw… – but that’s in the next post. You’ll have to stay here and wait until then!
Here is a pair of links my Dad sent me. I find them quite interesting.
The first one is about a man returning to nature after spending a good chunk of his life working in cities, and how he does it. He set a goal to see every speicies of butterfly in Brittan, and saw all 59 of them in one year! After that, he decided to try and watch badgers during their night foraging and sees a Tawny Owl.
The second illustrates the Spix’s Macaw and the extreme danger the species is in. The article describes it as the rarest species of bird in the world and is raising a petition to save its habitat and that of the Three-banded Armadillo. The macaw is actually the bird species featured in the movies Rio and Rio2. BBC Radio 4 investigated this question too – you can listen to the program here.