Sunday, January 5, 2014

Snowy Owls Invade the Region and Coyote Hunters Blight the Wilderness

This year Snowy Owls are showing up all around the Northeast
This winter the Northeast is seeing an extraordinary influx of Snowy Owls - arguably the best one in years. We keep hoping to get one of these majestic birds at our nature preserve, but so far none have been seen. Still, the winter is young and we have at least until March before the Snowys begin returning to the Arctic. Fortunately there have been a few Snowy Owls showing up in the hills of Paris, just a couple of miles South of us. I’ve seen 2 of them myself, but they were pretty distant.
This high field just beyond our south border needs a Snowy Owl
Looking for a Snowy Owl? Well here's an immature Bald Eagle
Last Sunday my partner and I decided to travel over to Herkimer County and to some traditionally good Snowy Owl habitat. The agricultural fields in that area are particularly high in elevation. Those large open fields provide owls and other raptors with good mouse hunting opportunities. The view from these hills is pretty impressive; you can see much of the Mohawk valley to the south and even some of the Adirondack Mountains to the north. The first Raptor that we came across was a juvenile Bald Eagle. It was on the ground and feeding – presumably on a deer carcass. It easily dwarfed a nearby group of crows that were anxiously awaiting their chance to feed. This is not such an unusual sight in recent years. Bald Eagles now can be found in our region throughout the year and often quite far from rivers and lakes. We had a young Bald Eagle spend the entire day at the nature preserve just this week and we’re quite far from any river.
Still looking for those owls? Well take this male American Kestrel
Is that a rock or an old tree stump?
Hey, that rock has a white face
Our next Raptor was a Rough-legged Hawk. We ultimately found 3 of these rather hefty-looking hawks. Like the Snowy Owl, in winter the Rough-legged Hawks travel down from the far north only when the northern rodent populations crash and when the hunting is poor. Our next find was a beautiful male Kestrel that was sitting on a telephone line, but we were still finding no Snowy Owls.  We had a limited time to pursue this venture; in fact we were just about to give up when we decided to try one more road. Sure enough, in the middle of a snow covered field was a mostly dark immature Snowy Owl. The bird was hunkered down on the ground and its charcoal color made it look a lot like a rock. Only the owl’s face was white. While we observed this owl it was briefly harassed by a female Northern Harrier, which dove down on it several times before finally calling off its attack and sailing off to the south. Most Harriers do not spend the winter this far north, neither for that matter do many kestrels, but intensive searching or luck can lead you to a few individuals just about every winter season.

The Northern Harrier repeatedly dove at the owl
The White rump patch on the Harrier is a good identification mark
A little more driving led us to a 2nd Snowy Owl. This one was much Whiter and was conveniently perched on top of a utility pole. We didn't get too close so as not to disturb the bird, but our binoculars allowed us to see the finer details of its plumage. In the old days we would've confidently declared such a white individual to be an adult male, but now studies have concluded that adult females can also sometimes appear as nearly pure white.
When not perched on the ground, Snowy Owls like fence posts and utility poles

This would have been a great trip had it not been for the fact that a coyote extermination project was underway in those beautiful hills. Groups of hunters – many with their hound dogs in tow, were pushing into different fields and brushy areas and trying drive coyotes into the open where they could be shot. Other hunters were seen parked in various places along the road side, lying in wait in case the coyotes came their way. It was pretty horrible. And what’s more horrible is that it’s apparently legal to do this in New York State.
Around our way, the only deer that coyotes feed on are those that hunters leave behind
Coyotes do most of their feeding after dark. Remaining unseen by people is a necessary survival technique
Why are they trying to exterminate coyotes? Probably because they think that the coyotes are somehow depriving them (the hunters) of deer that they themselves want to kill. Of course, for the most part the only deer that coyotes feed on are roadkill deer and on deer that hunters shoot, wound and then fail to track. If that wasn't the case, then naturalists like me would be coming upon plenty of coyote-killed deer carcasses in the woods – throughout the year, but we never do. The truth is that coyotes feed primarily on rodents, other small creatures, carrion and on plant-based foods.
Returning to the old site of a deer carcass which is covered by snow

With their heavy winter coats, the Coyotes look more wolf-like
Coyotes don't all look the same. This individual is more golden than most

Extermination campaigns like this are reminiscent of those that took place 2 centuries ago, when the pioneers of our area systematically worked to kill off every large (and even most of the not-so-large) predators in our forests. In a relatively short time they successfully eliminated all of our Wolves, Cougars, Bobcats and Black Bears. The result of this was a hopelessly out of balance ecosystem, which remains out-of-balance to this day. It’s important to realize that these coyote hunters are the same folks  that justify deer hunting in large part as a method of managing the size of deer populations. Keep in mind that when ever a predator that is even remotely capable of taking down a deer shows up, they want it gone. 

When coyotes rip into a carcass they make it more accessible to many other scavengers, like these crows

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