My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Rerun, The snowy owl trip, with bald eagles as a bonus

Note: I dug back through my archives to bring this post up to the front again, since so many people commented about it after I reposted a few of the photos from this trip. Sorry for resorting to a rerun, but I had started a follow-up post about this trip, and never got around to finishing it. So, I’ll edit in my follow-up thoughts as well.

Reposted from a trip I made on February 26, 2012

Well, I did it. I went to Muskegon today to visit the wastewater treatment facility to look for snowy owls, and I found one, and a whole lot more to boot! I’m not exactly sure where to start, so I guess I’ll start with a blurb from the Michigan Audubon’s website about the facility.

“Muskegon County operates a huge, 11,000 acre, Wastewater Management System that is one of the best birding sites in the state. If the name didn’t alert you, be prepared for a fragrant visit. This site is home to huge numbers of waterfowl and gulls during migration and also attracts large numbers of shorebirds. In the fields used as spraying areas you can find raptors and open-country birds. Many rarities are often found here. While you’re in the area, check out the nearby Muskegon State Game Area.”

And, here’s a map of the area, courtesy of the Michigan DNR. The place is huge, and only a small area is used for treating sewage, the rest is mostly farm land with a few woodlots here and there.

Right off the bat, I knew the Muskegon wastewater facility was great place for birding. I drove up to the administration building to pick up a pass, and there were birds everywhere!

I could, and probably should, do a post just on how the wastewater facility differs from the typical big city wastewater treatment plant, but I don’t have time for that. Or, to do the research to see who it was that was responsible for having the vision to build such a facility in the first place. Somewhere along the line they decided to not only treat waste in what I think is the correct way, but to also make the facility a haven for wildlife. There are bird houses and nesting boxes all around the facility, along with other examples of habitat improvements as well, and it shows.

There are two other things I have to say before I get to the photos, one is that the place is a birder’s heaven, and I don’t know why, but none of the pictures I took with either of my cameras came out as well as they should have, luckily, the snowy owl photos are the best of them!

Oh! One other thing, you’re supposed to have a pass to be on the facility, but they are only available during the week. If you want to go there on a weekend, you have to arrange for a pass in advance. You must obtain a permit from the Administration Office as you drive into the facility. The office is closed on weekends so a permit must be obtained in advance. Contact: 231-724-3440 to arrange to have a pass left for you to pick up at the administration building. If you’re a member of a recognized conservation group, you can obtain a long-term (either annual or two years, I don’t recall the details) pass if you plan to visit regularly.

OK, so how do you find a snowy owl in a 11,000 acre facility? You drive around until you spot the crowd of photographers taking pictures of them!

Photographers “stalking” a snowy owl

Then, you walk up to the owl, and start taking photos yourself.

Snowy owl

There’s one of the Snowy owls that is known for being a ham, and posing for photographers. The only thing is, he seldom opens his eyes all the way.

Snowy owl

He is a cutie, isn’t he?

Snowy owl

It is quite the social event, there will be groups of photogs there, alternately snapping photos, and holding conversations with their fellow photographers.

Snowy owl

All the while, the owl sits there squinting into the sun, listening to the conversations going on around him. When he hears that you’re all talking and not paying attention to him, he moves a little ways away so that you will return your focus to him!

Snowy owl

Then he sits there until a sufficient more number of photos are taken.

Snowy owl

Snowy owl

I don’t know what this guy was shooting.

Snowy owl photographer

I was using my 70 to 300 mm lens for these photos, the guy with the BIG lens was even closer, and telling the rest of us to be quiet and not get as close as he was or we would scare the owl away. After all he was wearing camo. I almost cracked up laughing at that one!

He’s wearing dark camo in a snow-covered field, his camo was flapping in the wind like a tattered flag, and he’s telling us to be quiet? I have some news for the guy with the BIG lens, even a nearly blind owl could see you sticking out like a sore thumb when you’re only 50 feet from the owl. Even a nearly deaf owl could have heard his camouflaged “hide” flapping in the wind! What a hoot! And that lens at 50 feet, what was he doing, checking to see if the owl had fleas or mites or something?

He was originally at the base of the berm that he was standing on in the photo, and he was trying to herd the rest of us away. I looked the situation over, and couldn’t figure out why every one was standing in the lowest spot around, trying to take photos of the owl on top of the berm while shooting through the weeds.

I looked at the owl, made mental contact with him, his name is Mike by the way, and told Mike that I was going to climb the berm to take a few photos if it was OK with him. Mike said that it was OK, so up the berm I went. I shot the photos I wanted, had a pleasant conversation with Mike, then thanked him for his patience, and rejoined the rest of the photographers down at the base of the berm.

At one point, the guy with the BIG lens came out from under his flapping hide, and shot me one of those if looks could kill kind of looks, but he said nothing to me about it. Could be because of my size, I don’t know. But, as soon as he saw that I had left the top of the berm, he followed my footsteps up the berm, BIG lens and all.

That’s something I have to mention, the wind. It was nasty out there! That may have had something to do with the other big story of the day, which I’ll get to later. I was only out of my vehicle for a short time, and I was chilled to the bone by the wind. The rest of us there retreated to our vehicles to warm up, while the guy with the BIG lens kept inching closer to Mike, until he took off.

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

And Mike perched where I could shoot him from my vehicle nicely.

Snowy owl

My, what big feet they have!

Snowy owl

You can tell how windy it was, the wind was trying to blow the feathers off from Mike’s chest!

The guy with the BIG Lens tried sneaking up on Mike again, while wearing his wrong color camo flapping in the wind, and again Mike flew off.

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl’s rough landing

You may or may not be able to tell from the pictures, but Mike basically circled those of us sitting in our vehicles, giving us great photo-ops, while staying clear of the guy with the BIG lens and his camo. I like that owl! As much fun as it was watching Mike give the guy with the BIG lens a hard time, I decided to drive around a few of the roads to see what else I could find, and it was considerable.

The other story of the day was that I couldn’t get a sharp picture from either of my cameras, other than the owl pics, and they’re not that great. I saw so many species of birds that I have never photographed before, and the photos I took today came out like crap, could be because I was at a sewage plant, I don’t know. Here are just a few examples.

American kestrel

Horned lark

Common goldeneye duck

Green winged teal and mallard

I spotted what looked to be a flock of eagles.

Bald eagle in flight

And I got this shot of two unidentifiable birds and an eagle.

Bird attack

Then this shot of a mature and immature eagle together on the ground.

Eagles on the ground

And lots of eagles in the air.

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

Bald eagle in flight

I’m not completely happy with any of the shots in this post, the owl pics came out OK, but they should have been better. When I first did the download from my Nikon, I thought that because I had switched from spot metering to center weighted, it was up to its old tricks again. But, I took a few back-up photos with my Canon just in case, and they all came out crappy as well. As I am typing this, it dawned on me that several times when I was either walking, or had the windows in the explorer down, it felt like I was being snowed on. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, and I never saw snow other than that which was being driven by the wind. But thinking about it now, I’ll wager there was more snow blowing around than I could see, and all those little ice crystals in the air are what caused my photos to come out as poorly as they did.

Since this is about the snowy owl, I’ll finish up with one more of Mike being the ham that he is.

Mike, the Snowy owl

I have since learned that the powers that be have considered closing the wastewater treatment area to the public, in part because there were so many people stressing the birds by trying to get too close, too often. Not just the snowy owls, but many of the other birds there as well. That would be a real shame, because it is one of the best birding spots in West Michigan. And, it’s just a few people who have no sense that may ruin it for the rest of us, which is so often the case.

I hope that the guy with the BIG lens and his camo straightens up. I kid around about chasing birds, and I’m sure that I do frighten my share away, but you have to use some common sense when trying to photograph any species of wildlife.

I also hope that Mike made it back home OK, unfortunately, several of his cousins didn’t, including one that had taken up temporary residence near the Kalamazoo airport. That one starved to death, in part because it never had a chance to do any hunting with crowds of people chasing it all the time.

Yes, I would have had liked to watched Mike longer, but I came, I saw him, got the photos I wanted, then left him alone. At no time while I was photographing him did he seem fidgety or uneasy with my presence. You can tell if you’re stressing an animal, and the general rule of thumb is to stop whatever you’re doing to cause the stress, like chasing a bird around with a BIG lens.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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16 responses

  1. I love your narrative on this! I still can’t believe that guy showed up wearing camo (even his camera?! LOL!) to shoot photos in the snow! From the owl’s reaction, it appears even nature can spot “stupid”. Way to go Mike!

    May 13, 2013 at 10:20 am

    • Camo isn’t a bad idea if done right, but that guy did everything wrong. Personally, I find it easier to connect with wildlife by fitting in rather than resorting to camo.

      May 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm

  2. I think both the owl shots and eagle shots are awesome. I’d love to see what they looked like as 8 X 10s. They’re certainly better than the zero shots I have of these birds.

    May 13, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    • Thanks, but it must be either the photographer or outdoorsman geek in me, owls and eagles are large slow birds, very easy to photograph, so I don’t think those photos are all that special. I am much more proud of some of the shots that I’ve gotten of smaller and rarer birds.

      May 14, 2013 at 2:27 am

      • When an owl or eagle is seen here it makes the front page of the newspaper, and I’m not kidding. It doesn’t matter who took the photo-it’s big news and the newspapers sell out every time.

        May 14, 2013 at 6:33 am

      • The snowy owls did make the news around here, but eagles have become common even in the outskirts of Grand Rapids. I believe that there are at least three pairs of them nesting in the area. The newsmakers around here are young male black bears as they wander the state in the spring, looking for a suitable territory to call their own.

        May 14, 2013 at 9:15 am

  3. Great shots. Well worth a second look.

    May 13, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    • Thanks Tom, I promise not to rerun it again.

      May 14, 2013 at 2:28 am

  4. Oh my gosh, I just loved your story!!! (Except the part about the one owl dying of starvation. 😦 ) Those pictures of “Mike” are wonderful! And I think the eagle ones are pretty great, too. You are so right about a few stupid people ruining it for others. Why is common sense so rare?? Thanks for reposting this for your new followers. Very enjoyable.

    May 14, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    • Thank you! Who ever it was that labeled common sense “common” showed little common sense, as it isn’t common.

      May 14, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      • 🙂 Perhaps it used to be?

        May 14, 2013 at 3:54 pm

  5. Awesome photos of the snowy owl Jerry! Such a beautiful bird, what an experience to see and photograph them. 🙂

    May 16, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    • Thanks, it was probably a once in a lifetime experience, I feel very fortunate.

      May 17, 2013 at 2:30 am

  6. I laughed out loud at this story with the guy with the wrong camo on. What an idiot ! Love Mike and so happy you got a brain connect with him. Sad story about the one that was harassed to the point he couldn’t it due to the tourists. Great post and what a beautiful owl. You are so lucky to have seen him.

    May 22, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    • Thanks, it was a once in a lifetime experience, and I do consider myself lucky.

      May 23, 2013 at 2:29 am

  7. Pingback: My First Snowy Owl, Oh Joy! (Subtitled Mindfulness and a Photographer) | Babsje Heron