Jane Goodall Knows

Like many people who care about social and environmental issues, I sometimes get discouraged. Can I really make a difference? What impact can I have by writing a letter to my representative, or signing a petition? Petitions are a dime a dozen nowadays anyway, right? Don’t you ever wonder if they really have any impact? I do. Or, I should say, I did.

Two weeks ago I got involved in an effort to stop the airport in Grand Rapids from shooting Snowy Owls. Very personally involved. And I think the experience has changed me forever.

Snowy Owl petition screenshot for blog
This is a screenshot of the petition on Change.org. The photo was provided by Charles Owens.

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you know how much I care about protecting birds and their habitats. So when someone in a birding group found out that the airport was killing the owls instead of the more humane method of trapping and relocating them, birders were up in arms. And something clicked in me right then — I decided to start a petition on Change.org. I’d seen how fast a similar petition had gotten results when JFK airport was caught shooting the owls in December (story here), so I decided to try and harness the passion of all my birding friends to see if we could do the same here in Michigan.

And boy, did we. My petition quickly got 2,000 signatures (and would have 3,500 in a couple more days). Lots of people started sending emails to the airport and the local media in Grand Rapids. Links to the petition were spread throughout social media so fast I couldn’t keep up with them all. Within 24 hours we’d been joined by some “big guns” — Black Swamp Bird Observatory and the American Bird Conservancy. Michigan Audubon also helped spread the word. While those more-experienced leaders continued their attempts to speak with airport officials, I focused on putting news updates on the petition site and encouraged people to keep sharing the link.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late?), the media picked up the story and aired it on the evening news right after the MLK holiday weekend. I was thrilled to see that my petition was mentioned in every story done in the next few days. (Although, thankfully for an introvert like me, the media didn’t contact me or mention my name — whew!) I’m generally more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes type of person, but I’m really glad I stepped up this time and put myself out there, even if it was just as a petition author. Because when we were successful in getting the airport to increase their efforts to trap-and-relocate, I felt a personal victory and a newfound sense of power. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that I was responsible for the success of this campaign. No, there were lots of people involved in making this happen. What I mean is that I saw, very clearly and up close, that a petition and social media can make a difference.

I was blown away at how easy it was to spread the word about this petition. I’ve purposely kept a short “friend list” on social media, so I knew I personally couldn’t reach that many people. But it didn’t matter because my short friend list includes people who have very big networks, so all I had to do was ask them to mention the campaign and it took off like wildfire. I was gobsmacked by the whole thing (just wanted to use that word today).

One of the best things about the whole episode was seeing this photo of the first Snowy Owl the airport trapped after this story broke:

Photo by Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Used with permission.
Photo by Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Used with permission.

In the photo is Aaron Bowden, a licensed bander with the USDA, who manages the whole trapping and relocating process. I think it’s safe to say that our campaign saved the life of this beautiful owl. And I hope the airport continues its stepped-up efforts to trap the birds for the next two months until they head back north to their relatively peaceful home — the one that doesn’t have airplanes and cars and people everywhere.

I was reading “The Ten Trusts” the other day (a fabulous book, by the way) and in it Jane Goodall said:

The Tenth, and final, Trust is, perhaps, the most important of all. It reminds us that every action we take to make the world a better place is important and worthwhile, no matter how small. Because there are millions of others like us, and as long as each of us does our bit, the cumulative result will be massive change for the good.

That was reassuring to me, because if anyone understands the power of individual action, it’s Jane Goodall. And the way I see it, what’s the point of being on this planet if I can’t be bothered to do my part to protect what’s left of the natural world?

Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best. ~Henry van Dyke

Winter Birding in Michigan

I’ve never liked winter very much. Sure, the first snow of the season is pretty, but after a couple days the charm fades away and it turns dirty and slushy. And all the leaves are gone on the trees, making our home less hidden from the busy road. And it’s so cold. No thanks.

But all that changed when I discovered the thrill of winter birding. Early winter is a time for taking my spotting scope out to Lake St. Clair or Lake Huron to scan the migrating ducks that sometimes float on the lakes in rafts of thousands at a time. It took me several years to get motivated to go looking for ducks, and a couple more years to commit to it after I found out how brutally cold the winds can be on the shores of the Great Lakes in January and February. I had no idea that icicles could hang from my nostrils. Seriously.

The trick is to look for the unusual one that's sometimes mixed in there.
The trick is to look for the unusual one that’s sometimes mixed in there.

But now I’m prepared for the weather–stocked up on long johns, hats, mittens, and wool socks–and I enjoy the challenge of learning to identify the ducks. I’m even getting pretty good at it (except for the Greater and Lesser Scaup that still give me fits). I’m still not too keen on learning the complexities of gull identification, but the ducks are much easier.

It may sound crazy if you’ve never done it, but it’s surprising how invigorating and refreshing it can be to brace yourself against those cold Canadian winds.

A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings
A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

And then there are the songbirds that come for the winter. The first to show up at our feeders are the lively flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, like the one I showed you in last week’s Wordless Wednesday photo. But other birds feed in winter flocks in farm fields and along country roads, like the American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, and Horned Larks. (Actually the Horned Larks are here year-round in Michigan, but they feed in big flocks with the buntings and sparrows in wintertime.) I just found my first Lapland Longspurs today, mixed in with one of these flocks feeding on a snowy road east of Ann Arbor. I wish I’d gotten a photo of them.

I was also surprised to find a lone Rusty Blackbird in that flock, standing a couple inches taller than everyone else. I had to use my amateur Photoshop skills to selectively lighten up the bird in this photo; I have a lot of trouble trying to photograph birds on snow.

Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013
Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013

The pièce de resistance of today’s birds is, of course, the coveted Snowy Owl:

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

That photo was taken with a 400mm lens from a distance of more than a hundred yards. I was driving around the service roads at the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, where Snowies have been hanging around lately. I had never been there before and didn’t know exactly where to look, and the way I found this owl was amazing. I’d stopped behind a car that had paused to watch a flock of Snow Buntings on the road. I couldn’t see the birds from my vantage point, but I didn’t want to drive past them and ruin their viewing experience, so I was using the time to look around me at the barren fields and roadways. There was a tall snow-covered hill on my left, probably 50 or 60 feet high. As I scanned the top of the ridge, something caught my eye. I’d been fooled several times already on this outing by big chunks of snow in cornfields, but something about this one made me pull up my binoculars. And I couldn’t believe my eyes — a Snowy Owl, sitting in plain view on the top of the hill! Well, actually he was very-well camouflaged, as you can see in this uncropped photo:

Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl
Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl

I jumped out of the car to set up my spotting scope for a better view. And since there were other birders driving around the airport on this same quest, it didn’t take long before someone else pulled up behind me to see what I’d found. I was jumping up and down and giggling, amazed that I’d found a Snowy Owl all by myself! I was like a kid who thought she deserved a gold star from the teacher. It’s one thing to read emails about an exact location where people are watching an owl and go there to have a look; it’s another thing entirely to stumble upon one before anyone else has spotted it. I’m still on a high from it as I write this, hours later.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is a juvenile male. They say most of the owls who come this far south in winter are the juveniles. And while adult male Snowy Owls are almost pure white, the females and juvenile males have the brown flecks you see on this owl. But because he seems to have the beginnings of a pure white bib, I’d guess this is a young male. I’ll never know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s nice to say “him” or “her” instead of “it.”

Now I can relax, I’ve seen my Snowy for the year. I try not to be competitive about my bird list, but it’s hard not to want to chase down one of these when the talk on birding lists is so focused on these fascinating owls every. single. day. I just want to share in the fun, that’s all.  If you’re curious about these visitors from the Arctic, I highly recommend “Magic of the Snowy Owl,” an hour-long documentary about how they survive in that frigid climate.

After a day like today I’m reminded, once again, of the impact birds have had on me. They have completely changed my outlook on life. Just as my discovery of the spring warbler migration blew my mind, now my enjoyment of ducks and other winter birds has made the depths of winter tolerable for me. I’m convinced that the birds are the reason I haven’t suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) in two years; I’m getting more fresh air and natural Vitamin D because I go out looking for birds. They bring wonder and joy to my world, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to those little feathered creatures.

Have a happy and safe holiday season, everyone. See you in 2014.

We’re Having a White Christmas, But It’s Not What You Think

Oh, we’re in for a treat this winter, nature lovers: Snowy Owls are coming again! The first and only time I’ve ever seen one of these beautiful visitors from the Arctic was back in February of 2012. (See my pictures here.) In some years, for various reasons, these owls come farther south than their usual wintering range in Canada and the northern US. And when it happens in large numbers, it’s called an irruption. Reasons for irruptions are usually either a shortage of lemmings (their primary food source), and/or a high breeding success rate leading to excess populations. The result is that many owls are driven farther south in search of food.

(Photo by Kenn Kaufman, used with permission)

As you see in the text on this photo, many of the birds that arrive here are young and inexperienced hunters, often hungry and disoriented. They have to adapt to new hunting grounds and new types of prey animals…and quickly.

This year’s irruption is just beginning to build, but it looks like it could be a big one, with Snowy Owls already being spotted as far south as North Carolina. And the birding community is in a frenzy with anticipation. I’m thankful that a few people have stepped up to remind us all to be respectful of the owls, and not to get too close in our attempts to get the “perfect” photo. Unfortunately, people sometimes get overeager and flush the birds from their resting spots, causing them even more distress. When I saw my Snowy Owl along the Lake Huron shore, I was part of a crowd of about two dozen onlookers. We were standing outside a gate watching the bird as it roosted on the roof of a building about 50 yards back from the road. It didn’t seem to be paying any attention to us, which is good. That meant we weren’t bothering it.

My Snowy Owl from February 2012 -- Half-opened eyes, just checking out the crowd
My Snowy Owl from February 2012 — Half-opened eyes, just checking out the crowd

But at one point someone pulled their car in through the gate and got out to take an “even closer” photo, and I almost lost it. Several of us called to the guy and told him he was too close, but he got his photo anyway. One thing I’ve learned about these exciting bird sightings is that just because someone is in a crowd watching the bird doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a birder or is familiar with birding ethics. So we need to gently educate those who might get too close. The “gently” part is hard for me because I feel very protective of any bird surrounded by a crowd of people, and I tend to get angry when people don’t respect the bird’s need for space.

I’ve been given permission to share this message by level-headed fellow birder John Lowry, who sent it to our local birding list today:


I suspect there are very few birders who haven’t started hearing about Snowy Owl sightings recently.  Social media has a way of disseminating information quickly, even though this irruption is only a week or so old, by my reckoning.  However, I think this is an irruption of historic proportion.  Do an eBird search for Snowy Owl records in the past month.  Look at the map of the Eastern US.  Holy lemmings!

So my purpose in posting here is twofold.  First, make sure you enjoy this!  And don’t take for granted that you’ll see this again in your lifetime.  Greg Miller, who inspired the books and subsequent film, “The Big Year”, actually missed Snowy during his historic year.   They are awesome to see, and photograph and study.  These birds are visitors from a land that no human within earshot will ever see.  It’s as if they have come here from Mars to grace us with their presence. (Kim says: I love that sentence!)

Secondly, be cool.  Be cool to the birds. Don’t flush them. Don’t get so close they keep turning their head to watch you.  Let them go about their business. The sad reality is that these birds are visiting us out of desperation. They would starve if they stayed up north in the arctic, so they risk a flight thousands of miles to find quality grassland and lakeshore habitats (which, in case you haven’t noticed, are quite gone).  Just enjoy from a distance and don’t let folks purposefully or accidentally reduce these birds’ already low chance of survival.  But… And this is a big but…

Be cool to people, too.  Not everyone understands proper birding etiquette, and ABA President Jeff Gordon makes a great point in noting that many folks’ first or perhaps most memorable impression of birders might be formed while watching a couple of jerks yell at each other about a distant white blob.  And yes, I will TRY to take my own advice. No promises.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, John: Enjoy it, but be cool.

In preparation for hunting my own Snowy Owl this year, I’ve checked recent sightings on eBird. Just look at how widespread this irruption is already:

Snowy Owls irruption map from eBird

And here’s a closer view of places I’m likely to go looking:
Snowy owl irruption map closer view

I’m headed out tomorrow in search of a Northern Shrike that’s been hunting in a local park, but after that I’m all about the Snowy Owls.

(Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is a few minutes looking at a Snowy Owl. Thanks!)