The Curious Owl

This is a story about those gifts that just fall into your lap every now and then. As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t had nearly enough owl encounters for my taste. Since these sightings are so rare, I treasure each one and I recall the experiences quite clearly. Back in October, I was lucky enough to add two more to the list.

The first occurred on a hot and sunny day in a tiny prairie town in southwestern Kansas. I had stopped beneath a big shady tree in the town’s park just to give myself and the car a short rest. While reaching for my water bottle, my eye caught a sudden movement in the rearview mirror. A very large bird had leapt from a tree branch and was heading my way. I turned my face toward the sky as it zoomed directly above the Pontiac at low altitude and landed in another tree up ahead. One of the most impressive things about owls is how deadly silent they are in flight, even when they are skimming just above your head. This was a big beast…probably a great horned owl. Sorry, no photos of this event.

Jump ahead about two weeks to another sunny day in South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grassland. I had dedicated the entire day to exploring some dusty roads east of the Black Hills. After parking at a remote intersection to enjoy a snack and the view and the silence, I heard a high-pitched barking noise directly behind me. Prairie dog? I turned to look past the trunk and spotted an adorable bird standing near the cattle guard, bobbing its head down and up with each squawk. A burrowing owl! My first such sighting, and a nice surprise.

Having never met Athene cunicularia before, I had no idea how bold or shy these birds could be. I certainly wanted to get some photos of this meeting, but I didn’t want to lose valuable seconds assembling the camera. So, I used the phone first to get some video; would’ve been disappointed had I missed the chance to record that voice. I slid out of the car carefully and was encouraged when the owl held its ground. After a few more barks, it jumped up and flew a tight circle around the Pontiac, just to return to the starting point and resume its barking and dancing.

You can watch that lap via this link to my Vimeo account. (Video duration is 58 seconds. You may want to boost your speaker volume to hear the owl’s call.)

As this owl evidently had no plans to leave soon, I then grabbed the DSLR and the big lens. The owl took another lap around the car, this time landing on an assortment of fence posts along the way. Certainly not a camera-shy creature; it seemed to be deliberately perching in great spots and posing like a pro. I’ve never had a more cooperative wild subject.

Perhaps this owl was curious about the Pontiac. Perhaps it wanted to be immortalized on the internet. More than likely, it was just annoyed; I think it wanted me to leave its nesting area. So I did. Thanks for the photos, little bird.

Acme Little Giant Do-It-Yourself Rocket-Sled Kit

rr still

Each time I travel the desert roads of Texas and New Mexico, I manage to catch at least one glimpse of a roadrunner. Usually, they just zip straight across the road directly in front of me, and by the time I reach for a camera, they’re long gone. I’ve never come close to capturing one on film (or the digital equivalent).

That changed on my most recent visit to the Davis Mountains. I had activated my phone’s video camera to record a scenic stretch of road. Almost immediately, a roadrunner joined the party. You’ll see it enter the road from the grass on the right, zigzag up my lane, cross the centerline, then run up the left edge of the pavement. As I pass, it hops into the grass and flies away. Far from a spectacular piece of cinema, but I’m happy that I finally got a lens on one of these beasts.

This short video has been slowed to just 20% of its original speed and there is no audio track. You’ll have an easier time seeing the bird if you play the video in full-screen mode (the icon in the lower-right corner of the video window).

Click HERE to view the video on my Vimeo channel.

Runtime: 55 seconds

 

Down on the Farm

This morning, my road trip brought me to a natural oasis within a sea of development. There, I found photographer Gary Bowen. With our cameras at the ready, we enjoyed a frosty sunrise hike through the Metzger Farm Open Space in Westminster, Colorado. Though we didn’t spot the coyotes today, there were plenty of birds out and about, and lots of color. Be sure to check out Gary’s wonderful photographs featuring the many inhabitants of this preserve.

Grebe…

Great blue heron…

Magpie with a cattail…

The resident kingfisher, and his friend, a northern flicker…

The Night Has Eyes

…and ears and wings and talons. Owl sightings are always special to me as they are so infrequent, and it’s rarer still that I can catch an owl on camera. When I saw the silhouette of this beautiful creature along a lonely road just after sunset, I parked the Pontiac immediately and walked slowly toward the brush, firing off a frame every few seconds. This was as near as I could get before the owl disappeared silently into the fading light.

One last image from the archive before I hit the road this week. I’ve packed 25 rolls of film for this trip…hope that will be enough. And I’ll certainly keep an eye out for owls along the way.

Western Texas
December 1994
Kodak Tri-X film

Raptor’s Delight

As Thursday was going to be another beautiful (and rather warm) October day in the Davis Mountains of western Texas, I made a point to be up and out the door at first light to enjoy a few hours of leisurely motoring before breakfast. As I rolled out of Fort Davis, I watched a glorious sunrise paint the sky and the desert floor. I then turned west, into the hills.

After several miles of peaceful riding, I was presented with the option to turn left on Ranch Road 505. This narrow strip of asphalt is just 8.8 miles long, connecting Texas 166 with U.S. 90. It has no shoulder and, happily, little to no traffic…

I took the turn and drove on, enjoying the fact that I was the only driver on the road that morning. But I wasn’t truly alone; a crowd had gathered, and that crowd made the scenery even more compelling. Once I reached U.S. 90, I made a U-turn and parked the car so I could attach my 80-200mm zoom. As I began to retrace my route, I knew that I was about to fire off a few hundred shots with the Nikon…

Birds. Big birds. And lots of them. Hawks of many different shapes, sizes and colors, lining the 505. It looked like a raptor convention. Most of them were perched on fence posts; some on metal posts…

Some on old wooden posts…

We fell into a groove; each bird I stopped beside would pose for about five seconds after my arrival, giving me the stink eye while I grabbed a few frames…

And then leap into to air, having seen enough of me…

I would then roll forward a hundred yards or so to greet the next contestant, and the pattern would repeat…

A few of the hawks had found a vantage point superior to that of a fence post; the tall mast of the Yucca elata makes an excellent perch…

And a hawk leaping into the air does a nice job of dispersing the yucca seeds…

Incidentally, that gray blob you see in two of the above images…it’s not a speck of dust on the camera’s sensor. It is a tethered blimp, near the city of Marfa; part of the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, which scans the border for low-flying aircraft…

But enough about the blimp; I was much more interested in the things flying closer to the ground…

Aside from the raptors, there were other creatures out and about that morning, such as this fine fat vulture…

And these bold little sparrows, basking in the sun. (Bold? Maybe just oblivious, or, perhaps, unappetizing…)

Even some four-legged Pontiac fans came down to the fence to say hello…

So, if you ever find yourself about to turn onto Ranch Road 505, be sure to have your camera at the ready. The fish are waiting in the barrel.