My Canon wish list is more expensive now...

Well unless Santa wins the lottery this year my Canon photographic wish list will stay just that. The lens, a 300mm F2.8 is pretty damn pricey at around $4,500 to 5,500 BUT the reviews are consistently amazing. It has been rated as the best birding lens around and it even allows you to add a 2x extender without sacrificing sharpness. Oh yeah, the converter is an additional $400 - $550. Ok now the body needs to be something magical. How about something that can take amazing digital photos while at the same time taking HD video. HD video you scoff! Yip, Canon now makes such a beast. The new Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III takes amazing HD video. Check out this video of a Brown Shrike shot with the Mark III. Ok so Santa must be wondering what this is going to set him back and I’m happy to report that the Mark III will retail for around $2,700. This means for well below $10,000 I can get the ultimate birding setup – hey we may even want to throw in a pair of Leica 10x50 binos…..


Moving to winter

Coming from South Africa where the weather is pretty predictable and mostly warm to the US was a major change for all of us. The changing of the seasons still remains a source of excitement and enjoyment for me, even after having lived on the East coast of the U.S for nearly 10 years now. I still can’t believe that on January 19th I’ll have been in the States for 10 years –wow. Anyway, I digress.

I have been keeping track of non-scientific barometers of season changes for a couple of years now. This stared with the Tree Swallow’s arrival – my official start of summer and has expanded somewhat over the years. Last year I noticed that the Mulberry tree shed its leaves in one day. Last year mulberry day was the 8th of November and I’m wondering whether this will happen again this year or whether it was just a freak incident that happened. Today I saw my first Juncos in the garden and the little guys are back two days earlier than last year. Does this mean we’re going to have a colder winter with more snow – I hope so!

Say goodbye to Fall


Video: Political humor - George W. Bush

Well its election season and we'll soon have a new President. I decided to take a lighter approach to politics by tracking down two hysterical videos featuring our outgoing commander and chief. Don't worry these are videos where George W. is intentionally being funny. Both these videos are worth watching - really! Have a relaxing weekend and enjoy the birding.

Solve the birding puzzle - literally

Click to Mix and Solve


Screech owl pellet

It appears that the Screech owl has moved to a new roost now that the Birch tree is pretty much bear, except for a few die hard leaves. I assume the Screech has moved over to the pines and it would be next to impossible to track it down in the dense foliage. I was lucky enough to find two owl pellets below the old roosting spot which means the little guy was in that spot for at least two nights. I had noticed some whitening on the walk way and thought it was an owl, but never looked up - DAH!

Size of owl pellet in relation to a quarter
World Owl Trust: "Firstly owls have comparatively weak bills and often prey that isn’t too large is swallowed whole which leaves the skeleton of the prey, including the skull, intact. Unlike most other birds, owls have no crop, and the food passes straight into the foregut (they do not posses a true stomach). The acid in the owl’s gut is rather weak with a pH of 2.2 - 2.5 which is the same as vinegar, this compares to diurnal birds of prey which have a pH of 1.3 - 1.8, which is approaching the pH of concentrated hydrochloric acid. This means that owls can only digest the soft tissues. The bones, fur and feathers remain virtually intact. The opening from the foregut into the rest of the digestive tract is small and prevents any undigested material from passing through. Instead, it remains behind where it is compacted into an oval pellet and is then actively regurgitated back up through the oesophagus. Pellets, therefore, contain bones including intact skulls, fur, feathers, the chitinous exoskeletons of insects and even the chaetae (bristles) from earthworms and so discovering what owls have been eating is quite straightforward.

Regurgitating a pellet is a voluntary act on the owl’s part and in the wild most birds will produce one prior to leaving the roost for hunting. Often, another smaller pellet will be produced during the night before the second main period of hunting around dawn. The size, shape and appearance of the pellet is normally characteristic of the owl species, certainly amongst British Owls".

Video: Kestrel vs. Barn Owl


Building a Screech Owl Box

This is an excellent time of the year to build a Screech owl box if you have the time. If you don’t want to build a box there are a zillion owl boxes for sale on the internet. Screech owls move in around March, so Fall and winter is a great time to get the saw and screw out and put a box together. I’m posting two plans that are very similar. Personally I like the second layout a little better because it has the sloped roof. Based on my personal experience with squirrels, I would recommend a larger roof with more of an overhang. I created a larger light weight roof this year that I screwed onto the existing roof. This will make it easier to take the owl box down for repairs as I can just take the larger roof off.

Plan: http://www.shawcreekbirdsupply.com/plans_screech_owl.htm

Plan: http://magazine.audubon.org/backyard/backyard0201.html

As far as placing the owl box goes, you should pick a spot away from human activity and most especially traffic. Screech owls often fly very low which results in car fatalities. Place the box at least 12 feet off the ground if you can. Most articles recommend picking a spot where the owls have a clear flight path to the box. Further recommendations are to remove all brush below the box as owls seem to prefer an open area below the box. I usually remove the brush in Fall and dump all my leaves below the box. This padding may become useful if one of the owlets falls out of the box.

Box mounting
I would HIGHLY recommend getting someone to help you mount the box onto the tree! Working on a ladder with a large object is precarious, trust me. Many people use pulleys to hoist the box up into the tree and I would recommend using this approach. Something that I’ve used very successfully is to create mounting blocks to screw the box onto. Rather than trying to line the box up and screw it directly onto the tree, screw 2x4’s cut the width of your box onto the tree. Make sure that you have a little bit of space at the bottom and screw a piece of lath onto the 2x4. Now you have a little ledge that you can balance the box on while you screw the box onto the 2x4’s. Using this approach also makes it easier to repair the box as your mounting blocks always stay up and you have your holes predrilled.


Most sites recommend putting some form of predator protection around the box. You can create baffles with metal flashing or you can simply wrap the tree trunk below, above and around the back/sides of the trunk. Last year I only had flashing around the top and bottom and I think the squirrels simply landed on the exposed ‘sides’ and climbed into the box. Squirrels can also very easily drop onto the roof, which is why I recommend a sloped larger roof. There is a down side to adding these protection measures that I need to mention. Owlets are notorious for jumping/falling out of the owl box before they are capable of flying large distances. This seems to be the modus operandi of most owls not only Screech owls and many people collect owlets and take them to rehab centers incorrectly assuming that they were abandoned. Bearing in mind that you’ve added all the squirrel guards it will be next to impossible for the owlets to return to the box. Many sites recommend that you place brush piles or sticks next to a couple of adjacent trees to aid the owlets in climbing up the trees. Obviously once they are off the ground they are less likely to fall prey to critters and the parents will continue feeding them.

Now what?
Once the box is up and you’ve added all the predator/nuisance deterrents add some wood chips to the bottom of the box. Owls may add a few down feathers for comfort, but for the most part they leave the nesting and comfort options to the landlord. I would recommend adding 2-3 inches of wood chips to the bottom of the box.

Now comes the hard part. Waiting patiently to see if anything happens. I am obsessive compulsive about my owl box so I had to add an owlcam to see what’s going on inside. Prior to getting the owlcam I was up on the ladder once a week to check if there was anything going on. This is NOT a very conducive approach to being an owl landlord and if you’re anywhere as curious as I am, then I would recommend getting an owlcam. I would LOVE to hear about your efforts, so please drop me a comment if you have an owl box or if you’re thinking about building or buying one.


Great Horned Owl Info

If you're fascinated by Great Horned Owls you need to check this out:

I bet there's at least one fact in there that you didn't know! Awesome post Beverly - well done.

Screech owl roosting in my garden

Yesterday I nearly had a Golden Crowned Kinglet land on my head! I was out in the front yard working when I heard a pair of Kinglets in the River Birch. The birds love the Birch and it’s a magnificent but immensely messy tree. I stood still and watched the Kinglets get closer and closer, with each wing beat I kept thinking that if I had my camera I would be taking some amazing shots right now. Well to drive the point home the male Kinglet landed so close to me that I could see the golden crown with my naked eyes. He spent a good 3 minutes just hanging around me and I literally thought he was going to land on my cap.
Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore and I ran inside to grab my camera. By the time I got back, armed with my Canon the Kinglets had moved much higher into the tree. I did manage to snap a couple of shots - none of them showing much detail.

While I was watching the Kinglet I saw something that looked out of place. You’d think that someone with the pseudonym of Owlman would realize straight away what it was. Well this was not the case. It literally took me a full minute to realize that I was looking at an owl.

As you can tell the Screech was all puffed up and he was pretty high up in the tree sitting right up against a branch. I tracked around the tree to see if I could get a better view, but for the most part this was a futile exercise. Later in the afternoon the owl became more active and I managed to snap some half decent pics, including a wing stretch.

I was amazed that the owl was so close to the house and he/she didn’t seem to be at all worried by the noises including screaming kids, lawnmowers, cars, fire trucks etc. Even when I moved my mower, the owl literally didn’t bat an eyelid. I checked on the owl periodically and it left the roost at about 6:30 last night. I checked the box periodically throughout the evening but no sight of the Screech.

Given that this is a red phase Screech owl I’m hoping that it’s the same owl that was in the box last year. Hopefully the owl will start using the box for roosting and food storage over the next couple of months. Either way, it was fantastic having a Screech owl so close to me for a whole day!