Chapter 5. Southeastern Manitoba
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.
(Shari) Departing from Thompson at 7:30 with the rest not far behind, we keep our eyes peeled for wildlife. This leg of our trip has few stopping places and after two hours of driving we take a rest break at a big gas station. Our next stop is for lunch in Grand Rapids, the first community in four hours of driving, we discover four of our birders saw a Great Gray Owl and two saw a bear. The only thing Bert and I see is a Woodchuck. Even the birds do not want to live on this desolate land. The mayor of the town stops to greet us and gives information about the area. Stopping for the night at a wayside on Devils Lake, Bert directs the group into three parallel rows on one end of the parking lot. Most of us decide to stay indoors since the mosquitoes are not nice. This busy little wayside is a rest area for travelers, mostly fishermen, going north and south. In the middle of the lot, a small white building houses a food stand serving hot dogs, fries and hamburgers, plus ice cream. Here, I negotiate 20 scoops of ice cream and the use of the screened-in dining area for later this evening. Bert and I also eat hamburgers and fries and are joined by Clay and Joyce. Soon the group arrives for cake and ice cream and we have a pleasant social before retiring for the night.
(Bert) We retrace a bit of the route taken on Day 13 and then turn south in the direction of Winnipeg. All of us are on the look out for Great Gray Owls while we still are within their nesting range. Leon saw one on his drive north to Thompson and said he would mark the spot for us, that is, if he could identify the location again as he passed south. Apparently not, for none of us find his markers. While pretty countryside, the sameness of White Spruce, Black Spruce and Trembling Aspen stretches for 250+ miles. Variation comes in the form of frizzy tamaracks now in full feather and in an occasional peak at lakes or rivers. Our GPS-controlled computer screen shows lakes surround us, yet we rarely see any through our windows. Instead the 40-ft. wall of trees forms a narrow corridor, miles ahead, but only a few hundred feet wide. The foreshortened perspective gives us a chance to watch for owls, but little else. When we break for lunch at Grand Rapids, Bill and Ginny report seeing a Great Gray Owl in flight, going to the ground, perhaps after its prey and then flying away. Ron and Mickey were in the following vehicle and also saw the owl, but all of the rest us missed the experience. We do, however, get to see several mammals along our route. Most notably, Larry and Marlene again find a Black Bear, this one half-grown, and all of us see one or more Woodchucks. Ahead of us I now see an object in the center of the highway that on closer approach turns into a White-tailed Deer facing us and perfectly lined up with the yellow center stripe. Surprisingly, another deer hides behind it, the two lined up so straight they appear as one. Only when we get quite close do they decide to prance off the highway. Other travelers later report seeing dead deer on the roadsides and I wonder if they were the same as our sighting. At our destination, I add Least Chipmunk to our long list of mammals seen on this trip. Later, Clay and Joyce walk with me through the woods surrounding Devils Lake. Birds are sparse, but wildflowers have started blooming and dragonflies are in profusion. Joyce spots a Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper and I photograph the transparent black wings of a dragonfly stretched over a yellow bloom. I’ve forgotten the names of some of the other flowers and never learned names of others, so I photograph them and later look them up in my books. Besides the Lady’s Slipper, I identify Purple Loosestrife (common along the roadsides), Pin Cherry (showy white blossoms), Heart-leaved Alexander’s (tiny clusters of yellow flowers, in the parsley family) and Hoary Puccoon (small 5-petaled yellow flowers). Over Shari’s homemade cake and Hagen-Daiz ice cream, supplied by the concession stand at the wayside where we park, I tell the group about our future plans for birding caravans to Mexico, Belize, Alaska, and our thoughts about trips to Costa Rica, the Maritimes, New Zealand and Australia. The long waiting lists for our trips must have spurred Clay and Joyce, because later they register for our 2008 trip.
(Shari) Awakening to a buzz outside my window, I see a cloud of dark mosquitoes trying to get into the bedroom. I hear one near my ear and figure I might as well get up since it won’t leave me alone. For the next 18 hr. we swat mosquitoes. I have no idea how so many got into R-Tent-III, but we are not the only ones bothered by the little buggers. Clay said he was awakened about 3 AM and before he shut the light off again, he had killed 21 mosquitoes. Poor Mickey slept without a sheet and got bit all over. Needless to say everyone is ready at 7:30 to move south and away from “Mosquito Lake.” Arriving at our campground about noon, we find campers have not checked out and sites are scattered. Check out time is 3 PM and many are staying until the last minute. I drive around the nine loops of campsites and find eight spots open. Writing them down on the map I return to escort the first four rigs, telling each where to park. I repeat the process with the next four and by the time I return two more spots have opened up for Marlene and Larry and Bert and me. The ranger gives me a complement, saying I had it well organized and got everyone parked without confusion. I tell her that is my job, but I must say, this group is smart. Every group seems to have special characteristics and one of those characteristics for this group is intelligence. They have a zest for learning, which shows at Bert’s talks, and this learning ability shows in everything they do, including following directions quickly and understanding them the first time. Larry has the fire ready at 5 and we discuss tomorrow’s agenda while munching pretzels and corn curls and sipping drinks. I will miss these socials. This caravan will be hard to part with; just when I get to know the people, it is over. Bert takes a small group into R-Tent-III to show his birding software, while another small group chats outside admiring the “wild” turkeys that have come for a snack. The two birds are not afraid of people and take peanuts right out of our hands.
(Bert) After many days so filled with adventures, I finally come to one with little to report. Rain lubricates R-Tent-III’s windshield as we motor swiftly south on Provincial Highway 6. The trip is uneventful, although when we arrive at camp I hear that others saw a dead deer being devoured by three hungry wolves or large coyotes. Our campsite is home to numerous Wild Turkeys that could more appropriately be labeled Tame Turkeys, for they beg food from campers and are quite willing to take handheld scraps to the click of camera shutters. After campfire, I demonstrate to a half dozen of our group the computer software I use to record and document our many bird and mammal sightings.
(Bert) On our last day of birding we cannot agree on a starting time, suggestions ranging from 5 AM to 8:30. Dividing into two groups, I lead the first out at 5:30 and Shari takes another at 8. Our group is after early morning owls, particularly Short-eared. We arrive at Oak Hammock Marsh under overcast skies, but still quite light at 6:15. Surprisingly, only 5 min. into birding along the gravel perimeter road, Ginny spots our first owl and over his handheld radio Bill tells us its location. The owl raises from the small willow thicket and flies softly like a giant moth over the grassland. Its long whitish and brownish wings flap like a movie running at half-speed. Its B-52 bomber-shaped body bulges at the head, omits a neck narrowing and tapers toward the tail. Not rising much over 30-ft above the meadow, the Short-eared Owl flutters up and down, to and fro, slowly gaining distance away from us, but giving us a grand show in its departure. We turn the corner of the field and at 6:35 I see another owl, this one resting on the ground so that just its top third protrudes above the grass. To my amazement I see prominent ear tufts projecting straight up from its head. Closely spaced and near the center of the flat-topped head, the profile reminds me of Stygian Owls I have seen in Belize. I’ve never seen ear tufts on a Short-eared and I’ve never seen a Long-eared, so I’m not sure of the identity of this owl. I glimpse at drawings and photos in my bird guide and those of two others, but none show prominent ear tufts for Short-eared, yet those of Long-eared appear too long and too widely spaced. Clay comments that he watched the owl in flight and noted less white in the wings and a more direct, less floppy flight. Not until we finish birding and I return to my bookshelf in R-Tent-III do I feel sure of the owl’s identity. Then after consulting ten books showing many more than a dozen photos and drawings of Short-eared Owls, I see only one that resembles my sighting and that is Sibleys’ drawing of the Caribbean subspecies of Short-eared, but showing shorter ear tufts than I observed. I’m now confidant the species I saw was Short-eared. An hour after this sighting we again find an owl, soon followed by a second, and we watch both over the field for at least 15 min. What a thrilling experience! In another part of the refuge Richardson's Ground Squirrels are common, including a few cute babies not long out of the nest. After we return to camp, I give to Cynthia and Carl a printout of an E-mail sent to me. It describes a Long-eared Owl regularly roosting at a residence near our campground. They, along with Jim and Betty, visit the residence and meet the owner, but they cannot find the owl in its usual roost site. As they are climbing back into the cars, Carl notices an owl in another tree and they all get out to see the Long-eared. The owl record we “lost” in the morning is replaced by another in the afternoon. When they tell me this story, it whets my interest in seeing the bird tomorrow.
(Shari) When arriving with a later group at the marsh, we are greeted with smiling faces. The group saw owls. Not being a birder, I still wonder if a 5:30 AM departure is worth the sighting. I walk the trails at the marsh, birding on my own and identifying some birds. Bert is suitably impressed when I tell him I saw a Western Grebe, Yellow-headed and Red-winged blackbirds. I am the first customer of the day in the gift store but do not find anything to buy. I should say I find plenty to buy, but resist the temptation. I take a group back to the campground and since the weather turns ugly, Bert arrives shortly thereafter. Tonight is our farewell dinner and it is marvelous. Located a short distance from our campground, the ambiance of the restaurant is superb. Having a choice of breaded pickerel with a dill yogurt sauce, roast beef au jus or chicken with roast peppers and feta in a garlic cream sauce. Bert chooses the chicken and I choose the fish. The dessert is to die for and I hear no complaints about anyone’s food. We have a short program, and everyone passes the quiz to earn his or her graduation pins. Jim has composed lyrics for Bert sung to the tune of Oh Danny Boy and all join in song. It’s a good thing we had the restaurant room to ourselves. All is in good fun and there is no shortage of laughter and talk as we eat our delicious meals.
(Bert) Although the trip is officially ended, we still have one more bird to chase: the Long-eared Owl that several in our group saw yesterday. Appropriately, Jim’s lyrics for the Oh Danny Boy song last night start “Oh fearless guide, the owls, the owls are calling …” So, here I am again leading a string of cars to an owl, this time in a residential backyard. I knock on the house door and talk to the owner who says the owl could be in any of the trees back of the house. Many trees need to be searched, but Ginny finds the owl within a minute. A surprisingly plump Long-eared Owl looks a bit like a Great Horned, but the extremely long ear tufts project from its head like tilted TV antennas. The brown orange oval face stares down at us, eyes slitted, forehead forming a prominent “V” that projects to the base of its bill. We quickly recognize the owl is standing on a pile of crossed twigs that forms a nest and then see tufts of fuzzy white feathers to the adult’s right, looking like a pile of wool not ginned. Repositioning, we can see the woolly lumps separate into three, each with a pair of coal black eyes. Bruce and I take dozens of photos and others take a few also, trying to get an angle not obstructed by oak leaves and branches. Then it occurs to me that all previous reports of this owl omitted reference to a nest and nestlings and that the owl was found in various trees. Judging that we are the first to discover the nest, there must be another adult male nearby. So Bill and I begin to search the other trees. I soon find another owl, but this one is another fuzzy white juvenile, a brancher so named because it has left the nest and stays on the branches, but cannot yet fly. In the drizzling rain, the juvenile looks so helpless alone on the branch at least 40 ft. from the nest. I take a string of photos and then search other trees. I find the adult male, so different in its slim profile, almost anemic compared to the fat female. Like the others, the male poses nicely for photos. I can’t believe our good fortune and I go back to the house to talk to the owner. She comes out shortly and I give her the news. She is elated and wants to see the nest and nestlings and then the brancher and male. Having such a beautiful and unusual bird choose your backyard for its nest is a rare and precious gift and she debates between sharing the gift with others and insuring the survival of the nestlings. I’ll leave that decision to her, but we are delighted at having this incredible opportunity.
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