Monday, June 29, 2009

Snake River Birds of Prey Festival

For the past few years Michelle and I have added a couple of extra days to our vacation so that we could take a little side trip on our way to or from Yellowstone. This began in 2007 when we stopped at Medicine Lake NWR in Montana on our way home to photograph eared grebe in their breeding plumage. In 2008 we stopped back at Medicine Lake on our way to Yellowstone but that was the year when spring came late and since most of the snow in the mountains had not melted yet Medicine Lake was quite dry and there was not a lot of birds around. So we continued on and stopped at Bowdoin NWR in Montana instead.
This year we decided to go even further and visit the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area near Boise, ID. It was a little bit out of our way, we had to continue 5 to 6 hours past Yellowstone, but considering my interest in Raptors we thought that it was a good choice.
As luck would have it I found out that the inaugural Snake River Birds of Prey Festival was being held at the same time that we would be in the area, so we registered for the festival. This festival was set up a little different then most birding festivals that I have attended. It had a low registration fee that got you into the event and then most of the workshop/field trips had an additional cost. This worked out well for us since we were only going to be around for Saturday and part of Sunday. So I looked at the field trips, that were available for Saturday, and two looked very interesting. One was an all day trip banding ferruginous hawk and western screech owl chicks. This would have been really interesting for me but it was not really something that I thought Michelle would be interested in and I could not leave here at the hotel by herself the whole day so I decided to go with the other option. This was a couple hour field trip to see burrowing owls. I know Michelle likes owls a lot and since it was only a couple of hours I thought that this field trip was perfect so I registered us for it.
So on Thursday Morning we took off and drove all day, around 13 hours, until we got to Billing, MT where we spent the night. The next morning we got up and started the long drive to Meridian, ID, where we were staying for the festival. We arrived around 6:00pm so we decided to check out Snake River for a couple of hours until it got dark. The first raptor that we found was a burrowing owl on a stick in a field not far off of the road. The next morning we had a couple of hours to kill before our program began so we headed down to the same area and we were able to locate numerous burrowing owls.
Even though we already had quite a few very nice burrowing owl pics we decided to head over to the elementary school where the festival was being held to participate in the program that we registered for. The leader of our program was a graduate student at Boise State University who was doing his thesis on the effects of pesticides on burrowing owls. After a short lecture he took us out to see some burrowing owls. In the festival brochure it said that part of the workshop would be to see burrowing owls at their burrow. I believed that this meant we would be sitting with our scopes looking at holes in the ground, boy was I wrong.
Our program leader took us out to the same area where Michelle and I had been photographing the burrowing owls. As part of his study he had placed numerous man made burrows in the area in hopes of attracting the burrowing owls so that they could be studied. The burrows consisted of a large bucket with a hose attached that was buried under the dirt. At least several of these burrows were occupied and as part of the field trip we got the unique experience of peeking into these man made burrows.
At the first burrow that we looked into the chicks were about 5 days old. As you can see they were covered in down feathers and their eyes were still not open. The little gold spot on their beaks is their egg tooth. This is what the birds use to break out of the shell when they hatch.
The next den that we visited had chicks that were about 15 days old. These chicks were a lot more developed. Much of their down had been replaced by feathers and their egg tooth had fallen off. By this time their eyes were wide open which made them much more aware of the large predators invading their burrow.
As a defense mechanism burrowing owl chick will make a hissing noise when they feel threatened. This hissing will often fool a predator, who may be entering the burrow, into believing that it is a rattlesnake hole. It was difficult to hear the 5 day old chicks hiss but these guys were really loud. Eventually they calmed down and members of the field trip were able to hold them.
When all of the chicks were out of the burrow we noticed that one chick was walking kind of funny. When we looked we noticed that it had a piece, tail and back leg, of a mouse in its talon. At first we thought that it was holding the food but on closer examination we found that it had somehow got the piece of mouse stuck around its foot. Our leader was afraid that this might affect his growth so he very carefully removed the excess from the babies foot.
This burrow had another occupant besides the chicks. When we opened up the bucket the female burrowing owl who was also in the burrow went back up the hose to escape. However prior to opening the burrow our leader had stuffed a cloth into the mouth of the tunnel to prevent anything from exiting that way. Once all of the chicks were out of the way he took a plumbers snake, with a lot of duct tape on the end, and used it to force her down into the bucket where he could grab here.
As you can see she was not very happy about the situation. A few of us on the field trip were concerned that our intrusion into their burrow might have a negative effect on the birds. We were assured that what we had witnessed was the normal routine for this project and the birds seem to recover well from the stress of the situation. I was grateful to find out that the experience was probably having only a negligible effect on the birds. The effect on Michelle and I was much different. This was an experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives.

28 comments:

mountain.mama said...

WOW! That looks like such a cool thing to do!! Great post.

Erin said...

a most interesting adventure and i so enjoyed the many photos of the owls. it was most informative.
thanks for sharing it with us.
have a most wonderful day.

Janie said...

What an adventure to be able to look into the burrows. The chicks are so cute!

kath said...

I love the babies! Thanks for sharing.

Carver said...

What a great post. This was so fascinating to read and you got some great shots.

Sylvia K said...

What a great tour! And to get to look into the burrows! Fabulous! Love your photos! The little ones are so cute! Thanks for sharing a corner of your world!

Arija said...

What a wonderful experience for you and us. Thank you for sharing this. I would dearly love to see them in the flesh as well.

Martha Z said...

Wow, what a great experience. I think you chose well.

Jedediah said...

The photos are adorable, burrowing owls are really special birds. Thank you for sharing, I'd love to do that kind of workshop sometime.

SandyCarlson said...

What an adventure.Thanks for the education re the burrowing owls. Makes me think about what goes on close to the ground.

Esther Garvi said...

Wow! What an amazing experience! Stunning pictures too!!

Guy D said...

Wow those are some amazing photos, thanks so much for sharing.

Have a fantastic week
Guy
Regina In Pictures

Luiz Ramos said...

Great Nature, beautiful World.
An adventure!!

irene said...

Never seen baby owls before..

Have a great week.

Wren said...

Like Michelle, I love burrowing owls, and I had only seen the adults. The babies are beyond cute!

ChrisC and JonJ said...

How cool is that! And the babies are too cute!

Paul Godin said...

A worthwhile side trip. I hope to some day make it out to that part of the country.

Creative Mish said...

Very interesting! I live only a few miles away and have never done anything like this. We normally just drive out to the desert and wander around :). I will definitely be checking out classes and tours.

Baruch said...

Awesome! A very interesting & informative photo story. Never seen an owl burrow before and those chicks are so cute. Thanks for sharing - I enjoyed it tremendously

Island Rambles Blog said...

Wow Mr. Ecobirder that was the most interesting article I have ever seen... .I learned a lot also..love the baby owls.

hip chick said...

WOW!! that was amazing. I never even knew there was such a thing as a burrowing owl. How interesting to see the babies up so close. they are cuter than I thought they would be. Very very interesting.

madahmas said...

What a nice experience for both of you to see those owls. :)

Chris said...

Wow amazing post and very interesting things you are telling us.... I love the web for this kind of things and the facility of sharing things through the blog world. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

Snap said...

Wow. What an amazing adventure for you. Your photos are wonderful. Thank you for sharing with us. I would have been concerned also.

Adrienne in Ohio said...

Wow! Seems your long detour was well worth it the extra driving time. Wonderful series!

amanda said...

As always stunning photos the first owl shot is gorgeous!

Aluajala said...

Oooh I'm absolutely in love with owls! Thanks for sharing your adventure and pics of these cute guys!

slfisher said...

Just encountered this blog! I'm the PR director for the Snake River Birds of Prey Festival, and it's happening again this year -- including the burrowing owl tours. http://www.snakeriverbirdsofpreyfestival.com/