Wednesday, June 15, 2016

TOBY Goes to North Dakota

Hi Everyone.  T.O.B.Y. (Tommy's Owl Big Year) is back with another post.  This time, I took my North American Owl Big Year to the northeastern section of North Dakota.  Before I get to that, I have a lot of other awesome things going on in my birding life.  During the trip to North Dakota, I was also on my third trip to Minnesota this year.  While most of the birding was in Minnesota, side trips were taken to Wisconsin, and as I mentioned, North Dakota.  26 life birds were detected.  Stay tuned for a lot more in the coming days and next couple of weeks for the fun.

Now, it's back to TOBY.  For my trip, my great friend Josh Wallestad hosted me to stay at his house with his family and bird with him for a week's time.  The trip had some hardcore birding involved (stay tuned for many upcoming posts).  Before the trip started, we had made plans to target Short-eared Owl at some grasslands in Wisconsin where they are reliable most years.  Because Short-eared Owl would be my 18th addition to my Owl Big Year, it became my most hopeful bird for the trip.  As the migration season went through and as the Short-eared Owls were in hopes of breeding, the fact is, the vole population is down.  When the vole population goes down, the owls won't breed.  And when owls don't breed, they leave.  So Josh and I had another idea...North Dakota.  In the Grand Forks area of North Dakota, Short-eared Owls have been plentiful this year after being absent the previous two years.  Josh went this year (see post on Josh's blog here) and saw a few of them where he had some epic sightings.  And luckily, an awesome birder named Sandy Aubol lives in East Grand Forks, Minnesota (which is just west of Grand Forks, North Dakota), and she showed Josh the Short-eared Owls.  Sandy birds grassland/prairie habitats weekly that are just northwest of Grand Forks, and she has been having plenty of Short-eared Owls to go along with it.  With me having one distant look at a Short-eared Owl for life and a crappy photograph to go along with it as well as wanting to lock up my 18th owl for TOBY, you better believe that I was eager to get out there!  A close up sighting would be equivalent to my first Short-eared Owl that was my life bird.  In case you don't know what I mean by that, seeing a Short-eared Owl on this outing would feel like I was seeing my lifer.

Josh asked Sandy Aubol if she would be interested in showing me Short-eared Owls for my Big Year, and she gladly said yes!  Josh and his wife Melissa kindly loaned me one of their vehicles for a four hour drive from Kandiyohi, Minnesota to Grand Forks, North Dakota/East Grand Forks, Minnesota.  This was after Enterprise told me I couldn't rent a car from them because I needed a major credit card, not just a debit card.  They never told me that over the phone, they are unprofessional people.  On June 10th, 2016, I drove up to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks to meet Sandy, and we almost immediately went for the Short-eared Owls after looking at a cool bird (stay tuned for another post).  From the start, I could tell Sandy knew what she was doing and I knew in my gut that she was going to put me in position to score on a Short-eared Owl.  She is a very kind and generous lady, and is the best person I could've asked to bird with for this trip.  I had a blast with her from start to finish.  Sandy took me through many marsh, grassland, and prairie habitats and showed me an assortment of birds as we were owl hunting (as I mentioned before, I will do another post on the Grand Forks Birding outside of Short-eared Toby'ing).  I've always liked to bird in prairie and grassland habitat, it's quite peaceful.  The area we birded is called the Red River Valley, where many prairie, grassland, and marsh birds thrive.

As Sandy and I drove, she explained to me about where she was seeing the owls and what times she was seeing them.  My eyes were peeled.  At times, Sandy was seeing them as late as 9 in the morning when she ventured out as well as early as 5 in the evening.  A few times, Northern Harriers got me to anxiously raise my binoculars before any Short-eared Owls were noticed by us.  The grasslands were filled with songs of other birds to keep things interesting while we were looking for the owls.

After driving around and having fun for about two hours, Sandy and I saw a blob way out in the marsh/prairie that looked owl like.  Sandy decided to get a scope on it.

As Sandy started to set up her scope, I saw another distant owl-like creature, but this one was in the air.  This one was for sure a Short-eared Owl, and it looked like a giant moth flying around and hunting over the grass.  The other bird kicked up to present Sandy and I with two Short-eared Owls.  Just like that, I had my 18th Owl and second ever looks at a Short-eared Owl.  Although they were pretty distant, it was awesome watching them.

Sandy and I watched these two Short-eared Owls cruise over an area for about thirty minutes.  At times they would venture closer, and then they would quickly change directions.

Watching Short-eared Owls over a prairie was a great way to get my 18th Owl of the year.  I was content with the sighting..

It turned out that the night was only getting started.  Sandy is awesome, and Sandy is cool.  I was amazed with her knowledge.  Sandy asked me if I wanted to continue watching the two Short-eared Owls we were already on, or if I wanted to go look for more as she spied two more birds in the distance.  I told her to do what she thought would be best, and she choose the later.  One road and a left turn later, Sandy exclaimed quietly but anxiously, "Tommy...look!..."

I was blown away.  Simply blown away.  God is great, and it was by pure generosity that this look and this outing was possible.  One of the four owls was roadside and was sitting with it's wings stretched out.  Sandy pulled over to her left so I could start shooting some pictures out my window.

Who knows why this Short-eared Owl had it's wings stretched out.  Perhaps because of the humidity?  Maybe it was cooling off?  Who knows.  All I do know was that is was incredible.  Just incredible.

I was shooting pictures quickly, and I couldn't hold the camera still most of the time.  As many of my pictures of this short sequence with this owl turned out a little blurry, this one didn't.  I've wanted to have a close up encounter with a Short-eared Owl badly since 2013 when I first saw one, and it felt great to get that chance again.

Once the Owl took one good glance at Sandy and me, off it went.

Even though it went, it really didn't go too far.  It dove into some grass before popping back up again and flying back to the road reasonably close to us.  An annoying Red-winged Blackbird decided to annoy the owl, Sandy, and I.  This may have altered the owl's flight path.  In these pictures, you can see how awesome of a flyer the Short-eared Owl is and how quickly it can change directions.

Sandy and I even had another Short-eared Owl fly right by the vehicle.  I had a great chance for a great photograph, but I reacted wrong and the shots came out blurry.  As the night went on, we continued to enjoy the owls.

Short-eared Owls are very unpredictable on their flight whereabouts.  They can be coming your way one second, and then turn around the next second.  This is to surprise and catch any unsuspecting rodents that it is patrolling the grounds for.  Short-eared Owls are unlike most owls in the fact that they are often active during the day as well as being crepuscular.  We even heard one of the owls vocalize once as it was harassing a Red-tailed Hawk in the area.  After Sandy and I got a great fix with the owls, we enjoyed many other birds in the area.  Stay tuned for a soon future post that will involve more of birding with Sandy at Grand Forks.  As it was really starting to get dark out at 9:30 P.M., we were near one more area where Sandy knew an Owl was hanging around.  I guess we had one more in us....

Sandy was very generous and kind to show me this spot and to bird with me all evening, I had a blast owling with her.  Huge thank you Sandy for helping me find my 18th Owl for my Big Year!  Wanna hear a crazy story?  I made a reservation to rent a vehicle with Enterprise in Willmar, MN, and they didn't tell me I would need a major credit card for an out of state rental, even though I asked them more than once what I would need to rent a car.  So they told me to scram, because my debit card was all I had.  But Josh stepped in and loaned me his van right on the spot.  Josh is the reason TOBY has even been possible this year, and when I struck out on what I thought was a sure deal in place, Josh was the hero again.  Great Gray, Snowy, Northern Hawk, Barred, and Eastern Screech-Owls were all made possible this year for me by Josh.  And this time, Josh hooked me up with Sandy for Short-eared Owling and got me on the road to get there.  Huge thanks to you Josh!

Josh made up the name TOBY for my Owl Big Year too.  Speaking of TOBY, there's one more owl to go.  This one may make me climb mountains, make me walk through the land of bears, make me drive for hours, make me fly on another plane, make me extremely angry, or make me extremely satisfied.  Some major thought and planning is to come for my final owl I need to get this year to round out TOBY and to see and photograph all of North America's Owls this year.


  1. I'm so glad it worked out that you got to experience all those Short-ears with Sandy--you couldn't have asked for a nicer and more knowledgeable guide than her.

    I really like the flight shot where the Owl is staring up at the RWBB. That Russian Olive tree makes a nice backdrop for the Owl.

    You are one step away from accomplishing this goal. I'm looking forward to seeing when and where and how it happens.

    1. Thanks Josh! You are right on that, Sandy is amazing and I couldn't have asked for a nicer and knowledgeable guide than her!

      I'm thankful for the shots I got, and that sequence is pretty cool when the owl looks at the RWBB.

      I've got some serious planning to do and thoughts to think up. I've come too far to stop!

      Thanks to you Josh for making this TOBY edition even possible--once again!

  2. Maybe I will be lucky enough to join you when you see a Boreal Owl. That is something that I really want to make happen for myself this year too. Best of luck.

    1. Thanks Jeff! That would be awesome to join forces to get Boreal Owl. Hopefully that 4 year MN invasion will take place this year for everyone to see!

  3. Dang Tommy, you good with those birdies! Awesome post Tommy! This is probably the best post I've seen on SEOW ever! One more owl left, the pressure!!!

    1. Thanks Caleb! It was a great time seeing the SEOW. And yes, the pressure...