[Tweeters] Owl Sorts of Surprises in the Stillaskamish Flats - 1/13/13

Barbara Deihl barbdeihl at comcast.net
Tue Jan 15 18:07:00 PST 2013

After reading Ryan M's post describing his finds in flats country on Sat., I expected to be swatting my way through swarms of Short-eared Owls and to be watching a major stream of raptors making their way to our welcoming river valleys in a sudden and unexpected migratory burst from points north. The prospect was somehow more inviting than staying in town and watching football fans moving in funereal procession through the streets of Seattle.

So, at 2 p.m. I began what would turn out to be a rather special visit to some favorite spots, even though it was a decidedly different outing than I'd expected. Should I head immediately to West 90 to be immersed in a tufted-owl spectacle, possibly punctuated by the exclamation point of a giant Gyr taking command in a field nearby? Or did I feel like a slower approach to the end point?

Pulling off on Exit 210, it appeared I would start slowly, first meandering my way into and through the Stillaguamish Flats, to check on the Snowy and Short-eared Owls, hunters, Snow Geese, swans, Bald Eagles, to see whether there was also a big influx of any of them into these parts. What I found was just the opposite. As I drove west on Norman and Boe Rds. the only beings I saw streaming, were several carloads of hunter persons leaving the hunting grounds, which, as I soon would see, appeared to be, from a hunting prospective, less-than happy ones. No visible geese, two or 3 hunters, no swans and no raptor swarms. Surprise #1 - things were quite calm and bird numbers were down from what they have been much of this winter so far.

End of Boe Rd. finds of note: one Snowy Owl visible amongst the driftwood up at the north end of the estuary, near the Stanwood/Camano bridge, one SEOW, 2 Northern Harriers, one Peregrine Falcon, 2 hunkering herons and the resident Northern Shrike. The shrike was Surprise #2 - it appeared perched on a bramble just out from my windshield, as I prepared to leave.

Next stop was Thomle Rd., where I got caught up in the beauty of the sunny pastoral scene, sans grazing sheep. The first Snowy I saw was in a tree up on the west dike, the second was preening next to a white post out in the field and a third I found on the dike, looking around, only its head showing. One man was out in the field, training and playing with a dog. Another, a photographer, was taking pictures of the preening Snowy and a couple of Shortears combing the field around him. He remained at a respectful distance from the Snowy and, when he did move, it was very slowly -this was Surprise #3 ! Thank you, Mr. Photog, for blending in with the peacefulness of the scene and not visibly disturbing any of the birds or humans.

Eide Rd. - the usual 4-5 SEOW wafted back & forth - one man and a dog walked around casually, and a couple of birders and photographers came and left while I was there for all of 5 min. Didn't even see a NOHA. Eide's lack of raptors was Surprise #4. #5 was that I only stayed 5 min. But the sun had limited remaining sky time and I still had a ways to go to get up to West 90...

I drove around Fir Island on Fir Island Rd., pulling over sporadically to snap a colorful horizon shot, featuring glowing Cascade mountains. I made no bird stops until I crossed SR 20 and was heading up Farm-to-Market Rd. toward Edison and then over to W-90.

On F-t-M Rd I almost had to pull over to catch my breath from the shock of having almost had a juvenile Bald Eagle hit my windshield. 2 eagles had been grappling with each other over the road just ahead of me, when, to my surprise (#6), one missed striking the other and instead, dropped down almost to the road and my car, luckily veering off at the last second off into a field. On the same road, I saw another Peregrine Falcon, perched atop a phone pole and 2 Rough-legged Hawks, one perched and another flying off perch.

I had another close call with a Short-eared Owl crossing in front of me as I drove west on Bayview-Edison Rd. toward the SEOW 'reserve', but no contact was made then either, but it qualified for Surprise #7. Saw several other SEOW before I got to the West 90 parking area at 4:45 p.m, almost dark. Once there, I quickly got out to see if there was indeed a 'swarm' of owls, but only recall seeing one Shortear. I became totally transfixed by what was going on in and around the parking lot. There were about a half dozen birders/photographers there and I could see one trying to do some photography of something just west of the parking lot - oh good, the SEOW were close, thought I, and made my way with scope, camera & binocs, toward some of the folks. I was informed that the bird of interest was a Long-eared Owl and that it was posing for photos, should I wish to try for any! Yes, Surprise #8 ! Kathleen M and Sarah P brought me up to speed on what had been going on and thanked me for having shone my headlights on the owl as I turned the car to park ! Surprise #9. Thanks Sarah & Kathleen.

Slowly the owl-watchers dispersed and the parking lot cleared out, leaving a Mt. Vernonite birder, Theresa M, a videographer friend, Dan R and myself to continue watching the perched owl as long as we could. Dan was madly getting his equipment together to try to video the SHORT-EARED OWL !!! He had come out of the field, seen everyone focusing on a perched owl and assumed it was a Shortear. Surprise # 10. To give him a break, remember it was dark. :-)

Dan wanted to try to use his bicycle light to better photograph the LEOW, but, cognizant that this can be a sore point for some birders and photographers, he asked both me and Theresa, if we would mind if he used the light. Dan has had much experience with owls and has found that, if one carefully and briefly shines a light on an owl, after slowly raising the light from below before shining it on the owl's face, the owl will usually not appear to be bothered. I'm not sure this is true with all owls and in all cases, but it worked with this owl. So, after getting the "thumbs-up" from Theresa and me, Dan shined the light on the owl, was able to get some video, and I managed to get "document-caliber" point&shoot photos. (See Flickr link below for my stills). Theresa watched it all through her binoculars. Thank you, Dan.

The best touch-down of the day for me was one attempted by an SEOW, when it swooped the LEOW off it's perch and both flew off into the night. Surprise #11. That the owl had been perched at least 45 min. and had been about 15 ft. away from us, was the final surprise - # 12. The entire time we (and some other people earlier) were watching the owl, it remained very owlert and was actively hunting, constantly turning its head.

What a surprisingly special afternoon, despite having not seen 54+ Short-eared Owls, the Samish Snowy Owl or the West-90 Gyrfalcon. Good reason to head north again, soon. There's ALWAYS a reason to go up there !!!

Flickr set: "From Shrike to SEOW to SNOW to LEOW - 1/13/13"

Barb Deihl

North Matthews Beach - NE Seattle

barbdeihl at comcast.net

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