Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Northern Hawk Owl Bonanza

Yesterday, Kristen and I decided to use our family day to go for a drive. Just how far we were going to drive we didn't know, we just knew that we wanted to see an owl of the north.
So we set out at 6:00 am, so we could be in the northern country before noon.

To give a way a bit of the story to begin with, we travelled 1,050 km and made it home to Regina by 10:30 pm. We only spent half an hour out of the vehicle during that time!
It wasn't until we had been searching for four hours, driving for 6.5 hours that we found our first owl, a Northern Hawk Owl! Only the third hawk owl I have ever seen. Kristen spotted it as we cruised along the road. We stopped, and reversed, just in time to see the owl take off, bee-lining it for a large spruce tree. It shot out its legs and tried to take something out of the tree. It dropped down into the bush below, and we never saw it again! Even though it was a quick sighting, we were pleased to have even seen an owl after six hours of driving.

We continued on our way and soon enough (~15 km) we had found another Hawk Owl! We couldn't believe it! This time he sat tight and allowed us to get all set up.

After a little while we had this amazing little owl in our hand!

Onward we went after letting this one fly off, which you can see here.

Our luck was absolutely amazing, we came across not 2, not 3, not 4, but 5 more Hawk Owls during the course of the day!!! We found 7 hawk owls in total. We were absolutely giddy with our luck. There was one slight cause for disappointment (if I'm even allowed to be disapointed after finding 7 Hawk Owls). We had only received three bands specially sized for Hawk Owls before we left on our little impromtu trip and therefore could only band the first three hawk owls. So we only could look at the last 3! I had mentioned prior to our trip to Kristen that I hoped we could find atleast one owl during our trip. I would not have imagined we would find 7, so wouldn't have thought to bring more. Oh, well, we did get 3!

Once in the hand, we weighed the birds and took measurements of the wing chord, tail and culmen. We also assigned an age to it, based on similiar features of the saw-whet owl which I have discussed here before. With a new band around their leg, they are quickly back to hunting for mice in the snow.

Hawk Owls and Great Grays are highly adapted to catching mice and voles during the winter. We watched a hawk owl yesterday hovering over a bank of snow, and instantly dive deep into the snow, leading with its outstreched talons. He sat there for a second like a toddler that has just been thrown helplessly into a deep snow pile. Then he sprung out of the snow, empty handed and kept on hunting. Most of the time, Hawk Owls use their speed to catch their prey, by plucking them off the ground. These things are amazingly fast, thanks to their more hawk-like wing (better adapted for speed and actually not silent like other owls), which are so fast in fact that the poor little mouse really doesn't have a chance once these owls have them in their sights.

All in all it was a fantastic day! We notified Harold of the 3 owls we saw but did not have bands for, so hopefully he will make it out and find them. Interestly, we didn't see a single Great Gray Owl during the course of our 1000 km trip. Ironically, Harold Fisher tells me he has only seen 3 Hawk Owls in his area this entire winter, so we were very lucky!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Mystery of the Banded Tropical Mockingbird

Now don't get all excited, no one in Saskatchewan has seen a Tropical Mockingbird. I thought I would share this neat story, because I learned something about banding in North America from it.
I recently was in Mexico for a family vacation. We stayed at a resort south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula. It was amazing to see so many tropical birds, from Magnificent Frigatebirds, Great Kiskadees, Yucatan Jays, to Squirrel Cuckoos. It was also a real treat for me to get to see some of the warbler species we see in Saskatchewan during the breeding season, but there they are on their wintering grounds. We saw Black-and-white, Magnolia, Yellow, Common Yellowthroat and American Redstarts.

One bird that was ubiquitous everywhere we went was the Tropical Mockingbird (TRMO)! This bird is slightly different from the Northern Mockingbird folks here in SK might be familiarly with, but not much at all.
These guys were everywhere around our resort!
One morning as we were leaving the restaurant area, we noticed a TRMO sitting in a tree. We had our binoculars with us, so had a look at the bird. Well, to our surprise it was wearing a band around its leg!!! I couldn't believe it! What are the chances!?!?!

(Can you see the band on the birds left leg?)

We observed the bird for a few moments and then carried on.

Being slightly obsessed about banding, Kristen and I decided to go back a few days later and see if the bird was still around. We had noticed that TRMO's seemed to stay in the same areas each day, likely individuals on something of a territory.

Sure enough the bird was right in the same place as we had seen him three days prior.
This time we had brought the spotting scope. Miraculously, the bird sat in the same spot for 15 minutes as we made a 360 degree circle around it with the spotting scope and read the band combination right off the band.

To our surprise, the band number included letters - "RSK4557" to be exact.
We recorded all the pertinent data - location, data, status of the bird - and continued on our way.
Once we returned to Regina the next day, the quest to find where this bird had been banded was on!

I started by contacting the bird banding office to see what they could tell me. Interestingly, I found out that the BBO does not supply Mexican banders with bands for birds that do not migrate into Canada or the United States. Therefore Mexican banders must have the bands they are going to use on tropical resident birds (like Tropical Mockingbirds) custom made. Therefore, the BBO does not have any record of this band, since it is not a BBO band. They tried to do a search for a bander who might band migrant birds in that area, but with no luck. So how am I suppose to find the mexican bander who banded this bird if the BBO doesn't know!?

Luckily, a friend of mine, Steve Davis, who works for Canadian Wildlife Service was in Mexico the week after I arrived home! He was actually teaching Mexican banders how to catch and band grassland songbirds. I quickly sent him an email, unsure if he would have internet access where he was. Thankfully, he did! He passed the information onto his collegues and they responded with two possible emails for me to contact.

Unfortunately, I have not heard anything back from the two organizations who I sent the banding information to. So as it stands I do not have the mystery solved. Hopefully something comes through soon! I couldn't believe that on my trip to Mexico I would find a banded bird!
If I solve the mystery of the banded Tropical Mockingbird, I will surely post the answer here!