Monday, September 21, 2020

Double jaeger whammy

Jaegers on the big lakes of southern Manitoba are far from common; so I was ecstatic when Josiah Van Egmond called out “jaeger” as we were scoping the water at Victoria Beach on 2020-09-19. I was blown away (literally and figuratively) to see the super long-tail streamers that immediately identified the bird as Long-tailed Jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus), accompanied by that “lighter” flight style that I came to know and love while atlassing in northern Manitoba (when we documented them as nesting in Manitoba, previously unconfirmed: . I had not realised that it was possible for adult Long-tailed Jaegers to keep the tail streamers on the southbound migration, but I have since learned from Peter Pyle that this does happen and that their moult is highly variable. Peter Taylor tells me that, if the record was accepted, this would be the first record of a Long-tailed Jaeger in southern Manitoba in 118 years. Sadly, I did not manage any usable photos of the Long-tailed Jaeger, mostly because it flew back and away from us and by the time it landed on the water it was so far away I couldn’t find it in my camera lens so instead went back to studying it in the scope. Then, while my head was buried in the scope, Josiah called out “there’s a second jaeger coming in”. The two jaegers were visible together for a while but the Long-tailed disappeared around the west of Elk Island, whereas the second jaeger first flew north towards Sandy Bar and then back south and closer, landing on the water a few times, in between bouts of harassing a few gulls and terns. This allowed me to identify the second bird as an adult Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus) and capture a few super distant record shots. I thought that getting more than one species of jaeger in Manitoba would only be possible in Churchill and the far north, but who knows what the wind can blow in…



Sunday, September 6, 2020

Distinguishing the Golden Eagle and the Bald Eagle

Since I spend rather a lot of time discussing the difference between subadult plumages of Bald eagle versus Golden Eagle (when people send me photos or in reviewing eBird records etc.), I decided to share a series of 9 slides on their identification. These slide should be self explanatory so click on the first one to follow the sequence in full screen:

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!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A few African Owls

A recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa and Tanzania enables me to add some African Owls to my blog. I will combine these with some photos I had previously posted from Cameroon for a round-of of African owls (though still far from complete) in rough taxonomic sequence.Unfortunately for me, there were several species of owl that I saw on these trips that I did not manage to photograph including Fraser's Eagle-Owl in Cameroon and Cape Eagle-Owl, Southern White-faced Owl and African Barred Owlet in Tanzania.

Barn Owl  (Tyto alba affinis), Cameroon, © Christian Artuso
The Tytonidae is represented by only three species on the African continent (another on Madagascar). The first is none other than the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and we start by showing one of the African subspecies T. a. affinis with a collage that shows a male and a female from Cameroon.

African Grass-Owl (Tyto capensis), Kiponzelo swamp, Iringa, Tanzania, © Christian Artuso
The only other Tytonid owl I have managed to see in Africa is the African Grass Owl (Tyto capensis). Alas, I did not manage to get an in-focus photo as the bird flew by in the failing light so this is all I have to share. At least it shows the long legs characteristic of the grass-owls. 

African Scops-Owl (Otus s. senegalensis), Cameroon, © Christian Artuso
The "typical-owl" family (Strigidae) is much more diverse and is represented by 39 species in Africa. We start with the scops-owls of the genus Otus and I will break from the taxonomic sequence slightly to put the most widespread and common species first. This African Scops-Owl was roosting along a creek in northern Cameroon. This habitat shot gives a little bit of a sense of the roost preference of African Scops-Owl in dense thickets in a low-lying wet depression (probably cooler microclimate).

Sokoke Scops-Owl (Otus ireneae), Kwa Mguni Forest, Tanga, Tanzania, © Christian Artuso
The beautiful Sokoke Scops-Owl is a very small (approximately 17 cm in length) scops-owl (genus Otus) that is endemic to eastern Africa (a tiny area of coastal southeast Kenya and northeastern Tanzania). It is listed as globally Endangered because of its very small population size and the fact it is found in disjunct and fragmented areas of forest that are under substantial threat of clearing. Most people see this species in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest Reserve in Kenya but I wanted to try to see it in Tanzania, even though it seems few people do (for example, prior to my visit there were no records in eBird in Tanzania). On the second night at Kwa Mguni Forest (a published site for this species but an area few foreign birders ever visit), we found a calling Sokoke Scops-Owl and managed to get record photos. We saw lots of signs of recent clearing in this part of Tanzania (except in areas controlled by the military) and recent evidence of illegal logging in the Kwa Mguni forest (our guide from the local village was visibly upset to see this). It made me realise that this poorly known species is probably hanging on by a thread.

Pemba Scops-Owl (Otus pembaensis), Pemba, Tanzania, © Christian Artuso
The island of Pemba, off Tanzania’s east coast and north of the island of Zanzibar, has four endemic species: Pemba Scops-Owl, Pemba Green Pigeon, Pemba White-eye and Pemba Sunbird. The chance to see an island-endemic scops-owl was enough to lure me over to the island. It turned out the owls were not difficult to find, as I easily saw five or six individuals along the edge of Ngezi Forest, one of the few remaining forest patches on the island. This is a collage of two different individuals. There is so little forest left on Pemba that this species is considered globally Vulnerable; however, it can use some anthropogenically modified habitat such as spice farms where trees such as clove and cinnamon are grown. 

Northern White-faced Owl (Ptilopsis leucotis) Waza National Park, Cameroon, © Christian Artuso 
The White-faced Owls were once considered to be one species but are now usually treated as two species: Northern White-faced Owl (Ptilopsis leucotis) and Southern White-faced Owl (P. granti). They are well known for their very distinctive facial pattern and are now usually placed in a genus of their own “Ptilopsis”, although this was not always the case. They are only found in Africa. The first photo shows the underpart pattern and the second shows the back. The distinctiveness of this particular owl (combined with the symbolism of all owls) was apparently the big selling feature for the strangest wildlife photography sale I have ever made—to be used on the cover of a romance novel (if you don’t believe me, see: – a lot different from the books my owl photos usually are used for! To see more abut the owling trip where I saw these bird see:

Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus), Cape Town, South Africa, © Christian Artuso
The Spotted Eagle-Owl is a widespread and common African Bubo (eagle-owl) species, found in a variety of woodlands and savannah types across sub-Saharan Africa. There are also Spotted Eagle-Owls on the Arabian peninsula, which may be a separate species. I was delighted to find three roosting birds in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa (in part thanks to a friendly tip from grounds staff) but they offered such splendid views in the early morning as they settled in at their roost sites that I had a hard time choosing which photos to share… nothing for it but to make an album with two photos of them in the golden hour, one of a bird from the back shortly after it flew in to join its mate and one of a bird preening later in the day and, finally a shot of the pair together.

Greyish Eagle-Owl (Bubo cinerascens), Waza National Park, Cameroon © Christian Artuso
The Greyish eagle-owl is similar to Spotted eagle-Owl but found across central Africa and west Africa. This series shows one hunting on the ground for insects in savannah habitat. The last photo shows one perched in a tree.

Verreaux's Eagle-Owl (Bubo lacteus), Cameroon © Christian Artuso
The Verreaux's Eagle-Owl, also known as Giant Eagle-Owl and Milky Eagle-Owl from Sub-Saharan Africa measures 60 – 65 cm, making it among the largest owls in the world (after congenitors Eurasian Eagle-Owl and Blakiston’s Fish-Owl and arguably after others like Great Gray Owl). One of the most distinctive feature of this species is their pink eyelids offset by dark eyelashes that show well in this photo. Despite the owl’s large size, their pink eyelids create a gentle almost coquettish expression. I took these two photos at Ngoundaba Ranch in northern Cameroon.

Usambara Eagle-Owl (Bubo vosseleri), Amani Nature Reserve, Tanga, Tanzania, © Christian Artuso 
I am not quite sure why the Usambara Eagle-Owl was one of the African birds I most wanted to see, so finding one perched quietly in the Amani Nature reserve was certainly a highlight! Not even a passing truck could ruin the excitement. Although a forest species, this owl will come out to the forest edge to hunt, and, on this night, one was perched beside the road that runs through the reserve. This is a collage I made of three photos of the same individual. Some taxonomists consider this to be a subspecies of Fraser's Eagle-Owl (Bubo poensis) but most consider it a Tanzanian endemic species, only found in the country’s eastern Mountains (Usambara and Uluguru Mountains). Regardless of taxonomy, it is certainly vulnerable to forest clearing in its tiny range.
Pel's Fishing-Owl (Scotopelia peli), Magombera Monkey Forest, Morogoro, Tanzania, © Christian Artuso
The three species of fishing-owls in the uniquely African genus genus Scotopelia are all amazing and fascinating. The Pel’s Fishing-Owl is the most widespread of the three but even it has a somewhat patchy distribution. A very large owl (60 cm +/-), it requires relatively undisturbed waterways and tall forest or mangrove. I made a special trip to the Magombera Monkey Forest to look for this owl. It was well worth the trip as, in addition to learning of their conservation project and other fascinating research to learn how to live with elephants in rural areas, seeing this beautiful owl on a roost was truly inspiring.

African Wood-Owl (Strix woodfordii), Tanzania and South Africa, © Christian Artuso
The African Wood-Owl is a striking species with a somewhat maned appearance created by the dark hood. I am going to post two photos from two countries: one of a bird roosting in bamboo from South Africa and this bird, one of four that frequented the Emau Hills camp sites in eastern Tanzania. This photo of a singing bird (I believe this is a male based on voice) shows off the distinctive plumage well, including the “hood”.  This is a widespread African species is, interestingly enough, the only Strix species found south of the Sahara and the only endemic African Strix species (Desert Owl and Tawny Owl each occur in only a northern corner of Africa; Desert Owl in a tiny part of Egypt and Tawny Owl in the extreme northwest). This individual from northeastern Tanzania should be the nigricantior subspecies, which is said to be darker overall; however, subspecifics are poorly defined in both description and distribution and not especially meaningful (some have suggested that the African Wood-Owls from the coastal forests of Kenya and perhaps neighbouring Tanzania may be better treated as a different subspecies).

Pearl-spotted Owlet (Glaucidium perlatum), Cameroon and Tanzania, © Christian Artuso
Widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, the Pearl-spotted Owlet is the most widespread pygmy-owl (genus Glaucidium) on the continent and arguably the most diurnal.  This first photo, of two I will post, shows a day-active Pearl-spotted Owlet in northern Cameroon being mobbed by a Senegal Eremomela (Eremomela pusilla) and other passerines. Like other pygmy-owls (which typically go by the name of “owlet” in the Africa and Asia but “pygmy-owl” in the Americas and Europe), this tiny owls (many are less than 20 cm in length) are fierce and capable of taking prey larger than themselves. They seem to evoke fear in all manner of small birds! The second photo shows a night-active Pearl-spotted Owlet in Tanzania. I was a little surprised to find several of these small owls hunting at night in the arid parts of southern Tanzania since my previous encounters with them had all been by day.
Marsh Owl (Asio capensis), South Africa and Tanzania, © Christian Artuso
There are six species in the genus Asio, with a fairly elongated body and ear-tufts of varying sizes (from very short as in Short-eared Owl to very long as in Long-eared Owl). The Marsh Owl is endemic to the African continent (including Madagascar) and is a bird of grasslands and marshlands (similar to Short-eared Owl in that aspect). Again thanks to some generous information from locals, I was able to observe this bird hunting at dusk in Cape Town. For most of the time, the Marsh Owl was fairly far away from where I was standing at the edge of the wetland/grassland but it one point it flew in my direction and then dove into the grass, apparently catching something, although I could not see what. This series shows the Marsh Owl flying to the area where it had detected something, the plunge, and then the bird’s head sticking out of the grass. The last photo shows another bird I saw at dusk in a montane wetland/grassland in southern Tanzania.


This ends this feature on African owls. It will obviously take several more visits to come anywhere close to a more comprehensive treatment.

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