Who let the ducks out?

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For the last few years, Black Swamp Bird Observatory has had to cancel their annual Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area field trip. This year, thankfully, the weather was beautiful and it was before all chaos broke out into the world.

I had never been to Killdeer Plains before and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Enough people attended that we could split everyone into three groups and I was paired with Mark and Ryan. Mark and I were in the back car with one participant, Ryan was in the front car that was full of participants, and there were about four cars in between.

Our first notable spotting was a kettle of Bald Eagles. Driving up to a field we turned a few up and then we had a flyover of a group. A few sub-adults (three to four years old, just transitioning to their white head and tail) flew directly overhead and the people (and me!) in our group were so excited.

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Bald Eagles are so beautiful. To think that there was a time in my lifetime in Ohio where there were only two nesting pairs is unimaginable to me. Even just at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area we have two nesting pairs. Conservation efforts at its finest for this beautiful, beautiful bird.

The first scheduled stop our group had was Owl Woods. Mark and Ryan had said the woods wasn’t what it used to be and that not many owls have been seen there the last few years. We traced up and down and all around and found traces of evidence that owls were there, but didn’t spot any owls.

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Above is an owl pellet that Ryan found in the woods. It was mostly frozen, so I didn’t feel too uncomfortable carrying it around to show everyone while we were at the woods. You can see the little bones and compacted fluff inside the pellet. In our culture, we are really into owls. They appear on baby blankets, they have majestic roles in movies, and make cute stuffed gifts, but owls are truly savage. Kenn Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds and Audubon say that Barred Owls in particular mostly eat small animals. They eat many mice and other small rodents, also squirrels (and flying squirrels), rabbits, opposums, shrews, and other small animals. They can also eat various birds, frogs, salamanders, snakes, lizards, and some insects. They may also take aquatic creatures such as crayfish, crabs, and fish. In other words, if they can catch it they are going to eat it.

Most birds cannot chew their food, and owls are no exception. Owls usually swallow their prey whole. In owls, food passes directly from the mouth to the gizzard. The gizzard is an organ that uses digestive fluids and bits of sand and gravel to grind and dissolve usable tissue from the prey.

Indigestible material left in the gizzard such as teeth, skulls, claws, and feathers are too dangerous to pass through the rest of the owl’s digestive tract. To safely excrete this material, the owl’s gizzard compacts it into a tight pellet that the owl regurgitates. The regurgitated pellets are known as owl pellets.

Owl pellets are useful to researchers because they can find out quite a bit about an owl’s lifestyle through careful examination of the pellet’s contents. Since most of the prey’s bones are not actually broken during the attack and the subsequent digestion process, they can be readily identified in the pellet.

I remember the first time I saw a video of a nest box of Barn Owlets eating mice. It was scarier than any horror movie I have ever seen. It was fantastic.

Back to our trip – later in the day, another group did find an owl in the woods! With some planning and communication, we were able to get all of the groups to see the Barred Owl that was hiding in a pine tree in owl woods. It was hard to spot, but it was still really exciting.

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Killdeer Plains has a lot of pools and in those pools were waterfowl! Waterfowl are my favorite, I must admit. Nothing is cuter than a little wiggling duck butt except maybe a fluffy wiggling duckling butt! We saw hundreds of Pintails, Mergansers, and other ducks. The first photo posted in this entry was from one of the most active pools we saw. Those were just the ducks in flight, there were hundreds below still in the water.

One of the highlights (besides the waterfowl), was my first gray ghost. Below, this Northern Harrier was floating in the air over this field for a long time. Our whole group didn’t get to see, but two cars stopped and most of us got out and watched for a long time. It was beautiful. Adult male Northern Harriers are gray and white and adult females are brown and larger than the males.

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At the end of the field trip, we all gathered at the Killdeer Plains headquarters and looked for Short-eared Owls but weren’t fortunate to see any. It was really good to see everyone and share stories at the end of the day, though.

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