Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Return Trip to Manitoba

I had the good fortune to spend a fortnight back in Manitoba and to catch up with friends and colleagues. That included the opportunity to get out birding a few times and appreciate the owls that I always found to be one of the province's main attractions. In just a few outings I saw 15 Great Gray Owls and 5 Northern Hawk Owls; certainly not a lot by Manitoba standards (nowhere close to a personal best for any species) but a great joy to watch. To share the memories, I put together this short blog post on some of the birds we saw (clicking on any photo allows you to view it full screen).

Starting with the provincial bird, the Great Gray Owl, I had a hard time choosing which photos to share as there were some wonderful opportunities to observe them. The first four photos illustrate an example of a Great Gray Owl hunting. The owl was perched in some conifers (first photo) near a ditch and was moving its head in a manner that suggested it was listening intently to something below (most likely the movement of a vole in a subnivean tunnel). We parked the car back from the owl in the direction the owl seemed to be hunting and waited for a few minutes. 
When the Great Gray flew towards the sound it had been fixated on, it made an unexpected turn in our direction and hovered ever so briefly before plunging. This allowed me to capture a few photos in the classic "angel" pose just before the owl dove.
The first dive appeared to be unsuccessful so the owl perched a little closer to the area of interest. We had no choice but to remain inside the car and wait quietly so as to not disturb the hunt.

When the owl flew back and plunged a second time, it was basically coming towards us and it plunged into the ditch where it was hidden from view by the snowbank and the vegetation. We believe the owl was successful on its second attempt, although we couldn't really tell because it was blocked from view. The owl stayed in the snow for several minutes and its head motions, as far as we could see, seemed to suggest it was swallowing).  
This hunting sequence was the highlight of our Great Gray Owl observations but there were many other magic moments, some of them captured in the photos below.
 

 

 

 


For good measure, I like to include a habitat photo for those who like to play "spot the owl".
The other northern owl that we always look for is the Northern Hawk Owl. In some winters, Northern Hawk Owls are easier to see than Great Gray Owls, helped by their habit of sitting atop the tallest available perch. This winter though, I got out on windy days and the Northern Hawk Owls were lower down and harder to spot, although this did make for an interesting photo or two.
Once again, here is the obligatory habitat photo for those who like to play "spot the owl".
The Barred Owl is a common owl species but nonetheless harder to see in Manitoba than eastern Canada or British Columbia. Manitoban birders certainly appreciate a chance to see one in daylight and this trip offered one excellent such opportunity. This bird was hunting just before twilight but I did not manage to get really good photos of it in flight.


There were some other raptors to appreciate as well; for example, a couple of Northern Goshawks and quite a few Bald Eagles such as this one: 

I also enjoyed some of the winter songbirds on offer in Manitoba, including several Northern Shrikes,
and of course the ever-charismatic Canada Jay:
It does not seem to be a particularly big year fro Bohemian Waxwings but the flock we saw put on a truly splendid show:



Winter finches are rather sparse this year. I got to appreciate some Pine Grosbeaks and Evening Grosbeaks but, amazingly not a single redpoll! Here is one of the Evening Grosbeaks.


Normally White-winged Crossbills are the easy crossbill to see in Manitoba but this winter was the winter of the Red Crossbill and I got to see multiple flocks, an unexpected treat.




And it wouldn't be a Manitoba winter blog post without a mention of the amazing Snow Bunting that has brightened so many a winter day!

I ran out of time to look for other owls unfortunately but wanted to share these photos to say thank you to all the great friends who shared these moments with me!

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