In birding circles, a Life Bird is a bird that you see for the very first time in your life. Most birders keep track of what they’ve seen in some way. Listing is the usual approach, at least a Life List, i.e. all birds you have seen in your lifetime. In addition to a Life List, some birders keep modified lists – a State List, a County List, a Yard List, Birds Seen While Riding a Bicycle to Work, etc. Jeanne and I only keep a Life List, which we started in 1984 and a Year List, all the species we’ve seen in a single year. The Year List starts over again from scratch each January 1, that way when we see a robin, or turkey vulture, or Canada goose they’re new to us, at least for that year. Comparing year lists shows patterns of arrival dates for migrants, missing birds whose species may be on the decline (or maybe we just didn’t see them) or oddities – birds out of their normal range or habitat.
Today we looking for one of the latter. A Great Gray Owl – the largest (although not heaviest) of the North American owls normally seen in the boreal forests of far Northern reaches of Canada and to a limited extent to the Northern parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota and Southern Ontario, Canada. Occasionally species like Great Gray Owls irrupt – that is they, in substantial numbers, move out of their normal range. Irruptions are usually linked to shortages of food in their home range or, paradoxically, to food surpluses that prompt breeding surges which eventually lead to an over-abundance of birds in their home range, forcing some to move out in search of food (usually South).
Several years ago there was an irruption of Great Grays in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota but they rarely get as far South as Central Wisconsin. But this year one was spotted near Mauston, about half-way between Madison and Eau Claire and just about in the center of South-Central Wisconsin. We put off driving over to look for it (it’s about 150 miles from our home) but decided to take the trek today, between the snow events of last week and those projected for next week.
Birding is sometimes seen as a solitary activity – you out in the woods with the birds. But when oddities present themselves the word travels and so do the birders. We were not alone in our trek to Mauston. When we arrived around 11:00 am there were already 14 or so cars and 25 or so birders on the scene. License plates from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa.
Luckily the owl is along a small rural road with little traffic because, as you can see, 25 birders with their serious optical and camera equipment and their cars present a substantial traffic hazard. We, personally, often refer to this clot of birders, each vying for a good angle on the bird (especially the photographers) as a peloton, after the clump of cyclists common in International road bicycle racing. On the whole, everyone was well-behaved and the bird was easily seen but not harassed by the presence of so many people only a dozen or so yards away.
So, why the Live Bird in the title? Well, the “rules” for listing says that you have to actually see or conclusively hear the species to count it for your list. Birds in captivity, escaped cage birds and dead birds don’t count (more’s the pity because the only Least Bittern Jeanne and I have seen was dead on the side of the road near Horicon National Wildlife Sanctuary).
There has been some concern over this particular owl. It’s a juvenile (hatched in 2012), out of its range and often such birds are distressed and under-nourished. This bird, however, has often been seen successfully hunting and doesn’t seem perturbed by the presence of so many people. There was reports several weeks ago of some photographers who were seen baiting the owl with dead mice (to get flight pictures) and drawing it from the field and across the roadway, posing a potential car collision hazard for the bird. Like I said, earlier, today everyone was well-behaved and all enjoyed great views of a spectacular bird.
A Lifer for us! And a live one.