If you don't mind my saying so, I'm fairly certain that the cover story of our December 2010 issue is going to knock your socks off.
In it, Gordon Court, a wildlife biologist for the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division, shares all he knows about telling the ages and sexes of Snowy Owls and the ages of Great Grays. Read it and you'll get more detail about Snowies and Great Grays than you'll find in any field guide, and you'll be able to report more than just how many owls you find on your next field trip.
What's more, you'll have the pleasure of viewing some of the best photos of Snowies and Great Grays we've ever published. Gordon took all of them. The opening spread, pictured above, shows his shots of an adult male, an adult female, and a juvenile female Snowy. Each is a treat, and there are plenty more of each species.
Gordon, in addition to being a biologist, is a bird bander and a busy wildlife rehabilitator. When I spoke to him as we wrapped up work on the issue, he had three Peregrine Falcons rehabbing in his backyard!
His answers to my questions -- about himself, his research on owls and Peregrines, his banding buddy Ray Cromie, and how he shoots his photos -- are below. --Matt Mendenhall, Associate Editor
Our December 2010 issue will appear on newsstands on November 2. If you're a subscriber, check your mailbox! Your copy should be arriving any day now.
What are your responsibilities as a biologist with the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division? I am involved with determining and assigning status to wild species in the province and for helping with Species at Risk identification and recovery. I represent our provincial government on several national and international committees on issues pertaining to Species at Risk. Happily, I still get outside sometimes and oversee Peregrine Falcon recovery and monitoring in Alberta. Why do you capture and band owls? How do you capture them? We have a number of licensed bird banders in the province, some of whom band raptors. Banding provides us with a great deal of information, including longevity records, survival estimates, age and sex distributions of wintering populations, migratory behavior, dispersal behavior, molt patterns, aging techniques, condition indices, primary mortality factors... just to name a few. Like most raptor banders, we have a wide assortment of traps and nets for capturing birds. With many of the northern owls, a lure and a landing net is often all that we require. What have you learned from owls you've banded that have been recovered? In general, we have learned that owls are much more mobile than we expected. Great Grays can move several hundred miles in winter, and Snowies are the real long-distance migrants: Some birds from the Great Plains eventually breed on the high Arctic islands. One of my banding pals banded a Northern Hawk Owl one winter near Edmonton; the same bird was killed by a car just outside Anchorage, Alaska, the next spring — a distance of about 1,900 miles! In your article, you mention occasions when a birdwatcher might find not one but a "bounty" of Great Gray or Snowy Owls. Has this happened to you? Where? Absolutely. In November 1997 we had a major invasion just north and east of Edmonton, where it was possible to see six or seven Great Grays in one place. That year, in an area of about 25 by 25 miles, my banding friends caught and banded 144 Great Grays. In January 2000, we drove from the northern Alberta town of La Crete down Highway 88 to Red Earth Creek (a couple of hundred miles) and saw 48 Great Grays in one morning! Where and how did you take the pictures of Snowy and Great Gray Owls that appear with your article? Most of the Snowy Owl photos were taken in the Edmonton area, usually in January and February. The Great Gray Owls were photographed in the boreal forest areas north of Edmonton — north to Wood Buffalo National Park. Many of them are of birds that have been lured in for trapping and banding. To offset any stress caused by trapping in winter, we also offer food to individuals after they have been processed. This also allows for some photo ops. In your article, you give three tips for learning your owls (practicing with photos on the internet and in books, adding contrast and over-sharpening digital photos, and studying bird skins and mounts). Is that how you learned? Yes. I was schooled in ornithology and have always been interested in the timing and pattern of molt. I encouraged many of my banding colleagues to look closely for patterns in molt and to take as much information as possible when handling captured birds. We were able to evaluate the findings of other researchers regarding molt and added a few findings ourselves. I have also enjoyed photography, so even if we didn't manage to catch a bird for banding, I still looked for patterns in the photos. Digital photography has enhanced this opportunity even more, as you can adjust your images in so many ways, some of which make patterns of feather replacement quite obvious. When looking at bird skins or mounts in museums, I always watch for plumage clues to the birds' age and sex.
Bander Ray Cromie stands outside his van on an outing to capture and band owls near Cross Lake Provincial Park in northern Alberta. (The vehicle's vanity plate, which is covered by snow, reads Owler 1.) "Sometimes we push our luck with the road conditions," says Gordon Court, "but conditions like this are ideal for Great Grays."
In your article, you credit Ray Cromie with sparking your interest in owls and their plumage. Who is Ray? And how did he come to capture and band more than 800 Great Gray Owls? Ray is a retired school principal who taught for more than 30 years in Sherwood Park, Alberta. His classrooms were a magical assortment of wings, skins, owl pellets, garter snakes, bird nets, etc. I really wanted him to be my homeroom teacher when I entered Grade 5, and I was very disappointed when I was assigned another class. I had to join the chess club just to get access to his classroom. I wasn't really interested in chess, but I spent many a happy option period in his class with all the natural history treasures. When Ray retired in the early 1990s, he applied for a Master Banding Permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service. He is a keen, keen owl man and loves to get out in winter in search of owls, especially Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owls. He also builds owl boxes and installs them in appropriate habitat, getting regular use by Northern Saw-whet, Boreal, and Barred Owls. Several graduate students in ornithology have used Ray's study population for masters and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Alberta. What do we know about the population status of Snowies and Great Grays? Both species are doing well and are listed as Secure or Not At Risk in Canada today. In June 2008, you wrote a fascinating article for us about the Peregrine Falcons of Rankin Inlet, on Hudson Bay, Nunavut. Is the area still "home to one of the densest and most productive breeding populations of the Peregrine Falcon anywhere"? Are you still studying them? Indeed! Rankin Inlet still boasts an incredible Peregrine Falcon population and several researchers continue to study them. You can see what is happening with this project by going to the Arctic Raptor Project. Have you found Peregrine Falcons away from Rankin Inlet that eat mammals? Dr. Alastair Franke, from the Arctic Raptor Project, has other Peregrine studies going on near Igloolik, Nunavut, and on Baffin Island. They will be evaluating diet in those areas to see how often mammals appear in the diet. We may know soon!
You told me recently about a female Peregrine Falcon you helped rehab after she had been found on the ground with a serious leg injury. How is she doing? Great! In fact, she is sitting on the back of a chair in my office, watching me type this email. Here's a photo of her from a few days ago (right). I had her in at the veterinary hospital this afternoon to remove the stitches from the large wound on her leg (probably inflicted by a Great Horned Owl). She has a couple of more days on antibiotics, then I will drive her to the Alberta/Montana border and let her loose.
See the contents of our December issue.
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