Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, February 26, 2018

Of Lifer Owls and Extraordinary Sporting Wins

Boreal Owl

Just about three years ago, on March 20, 2015, I drove down to Chicago to pick up my new puppy, Pip. As I walked to the car from the breeder’s house, Pip in my arms, we passed a tree with a singing House Finch, and Pip looked up through the still-bare branches to see him. That was the number one bird on her life list, and her interest in the little guy seemed an auspicious start to our life together. That first day, just paying attention between the breeder’s house in Park Ridge and my sister-in-law’s house in Chicago proper, we got Pip’s lifelist up to ten, and by the time we made it home two days later, it was at 33.

Pip's first day with me!
Pip just after adding her first bird to her lifelist.
I was still recovering from my heart attack, which had happened just five weeks before, so I wasn’t very active birding that first spring with her, but the day after we got home from Chicago, crows yelling their heads off alerted us to a Great Horned Owl just three doors down. That was the first owl on Pip’s lifelist, and being so close to our yard, it reinforced my commitment to stay with Pip any time she went out after dark. (Now as an adult weighing 9 pounds, Pip weighs almost twice what the heaviest Great Horned Owl on record weighs, and more than twice what one of their favorite prey, snowshoe hares, weigh, but when she was a three-pound puppy, she’d have been easy pickin’s. Even at full weight, she’s small enough that she could be killed easily by a Great Horned Owl, but too heavy for it to carry her off. An owl would have had to eat her on site.)

The week after I brought Pip home, we saw the other large owl that could make an easy meal of her—a Snowy Owl in Superior. It was more than a month before Pip saw another wild owl—an Eastern Screech-Owl in Ohio during the birding festival called the Biggest Week in American Birding. She was already familiar with screech owls because of my little Archimedes, but the Ohio bird was her first in the wild.

Eastern Screech-Owl
I saw this Eastern Screech-Owl at the Magee Marsh the year before Pip was born. But it COULD be the one she saw, too. 

Pip added lots of birders as well as birds to her lifelist in Ohio.

Pip and her Uncle Drew
J. Drew Lanham and Pip are good friends! And Pip got to hear his voice this December on the radio when Drew and I were guests on Science Friday!

Kim Kaufman and Pip!
Kimberly Kaufman and Pip

Pip and I didn’t see another owl until that September, when a saw-whet was calling and hunting in my backyard one evening. And then we went more than a year before Pip added another owl to her lifelist. That was about one in the morning on November 3, 2016, the night my beloved Chicago Cubs won the World Series. The game was over at 11:47 pm, very late for me, but I was so elated that I couldn’t pull myself away from the TV for over an hour. When I took Pip outside, a Boreal Owl was calling away, and moving from one neighbor’s yard to another to my yard, apparently actively hunting. My education owl Archimedes was trilling in response. Nature itself approved of the Cubs finally winning, and Pip was still wearing her little Cubs jersey as she added this splendid lifer.

Pip loves her Cubbies!

That was it for owls on Pip’s lifelist until just this week. On Monday, February 19, exactly the day the Duluth Curling Club, a.k.a. Team U.S.A., started winning games in the lead-up to Olympic Gold, Pip started seeing owls again. That is when we went birding with my friend Susan Szeszol.

Susan Szeszol with me and Pip.

Susan had come up from Chicago to the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival, but with a delayed flight, she missed her Saturday field trip. On her Sunday bog field trip, during the snowstorm, she saw a Boreal Owl but didn’t get to see Northern Hawk Owl or Great Gray Owl. So on Monday morning, Pip and I took her birding closer to our own neck of the woods, where we found both of those two owls. The hawk owl was too far away for good photos...

Northern Hawk Owl

... and the great gray flew too quickly...

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

... but nevertheless they were lifers for both Susan and Pip. Tragically, I forgot all about my practice of serving brownies after seeing owl lifers.

Then on Friday, I heard crows cawing somewhere nearby and took Pip to check it out. We found another Great Gray Owl, this one barely photographable, roosting in the aspens across from St. Michael’s Church.  Those noisy crows, intrepid little chickadees, a couple of Downy Woodpeckers, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker bombarded it as it sat tight. I didn't get any photos showing the actual bombardments, but if you look carefully above and to the left of the owl, you can see a Downy Woodpecker raining expletives on the poor bird.

Great Gray Owl roosting in my neighborhood

Then on Saturday, Pip and I went to the bog again. This time we got even better looks at a Great Gray Owl, on the power line on our side of Highway 7; after several minutes, it dropped to a lower perch for a while. Pip was fascinated—I think this was her best look at any owl ever except for Archimedes. I was so darned intent on photographing the owl that I didn't even think to take a photo of Pip watching it.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

Apparently thanks to the Duluth Curling Club having just won the Olympic Gold Medal at 2 am that very morning, Pip and I also saw a Boreal Owl—a Boreal Owl seems to appear for Pip right after extraordinary achievements of our favorite teams. As with the owl after the Cubbies' win, I couldn't take a photo—too many people had hiked too close to the owl already. This time Pip wasn’t wearing a Duluth Curling Club jersey, but apparently whatever deity arranges these wonderful coincidences knew what was in our hearts. Susan had returned to Chicago with the northern owl trifecta. Pip had two lifers and now yet another acknowledgement that Nature itself approves of our beloved teams. That was a win for all of us.

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