Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Biggest Week In American Birding 2013

Black Swamp Bird Observatory has been buzzing like a bee hive for the last few weeks as we pushed hard to hammer out the final details for the 2013 Biggest Week In American Birding. The Biggest Week is a ten day birding festival that takes place in early May in northwest Ohio, a place we've dubbed, "The Warbler Capital of the World!" Last year was a total blast - and we knew we were going to have to work really hard to top it.  I think we're off to a good start!

We designed a brand new Biggest Week website, loaded it up with all kinds of great field trips, programs, workshops, travel information, and conservation initiatives, and we just launched it! 

Along with the new website, we also unveiled a stunning new festival logo designed by world-class wildlife artist Darin Miller.  

Darin is an Ohio native who specializes in bird art,
and my-oh-my, can this man paint! 

Some of my fellow BiF! bloggers are speaking and leading field trips at the festival, including Lillian Stokes (and her husband Don), Drew Lanham, Linda Rockwell, and Rob Ripma. Rob is one of our field trip coordinators along with Greg Links and they have planned out a phenomenal list of field trips.
Like the Biggest Week on Facebook. 

I'm really excited about some of the walks we're offering for new birders to encourage newbies to come try birding for the first time. We have two free workshops on getting started in birding and they're being presented by Jessie Barry and Chris Wood from Cornell Lab of Ornithology! 

We're also planning some diversity outreach through bird walks in some of Toledo Metropark's more urban parks.

Only in its fifth year, the festival is helping to bring tens of thousands of birders
to northwest Ohio to enjoy some of the best spring birding on the continent. 
Scarlet Tanager by Kenn Kaufman
Canada Warbler by Kenn Kaufman
But the festival does more than just help thousands of people enjoy sensational birding. 

The Biggest Week is part of a comprehensive conservation business plan that the team at BSBO has executed very effectively. Thanks to the knowledge of bird migration gained though BSBO's long term research, and some really outstanding partners like Birds & Blooms Magazine and Lake Erie Shores & Islands, our marketing efforts have been very successful and we've created a brand new tourism season during a time that business owners previously considered one of their slower times of the year. Businesses are opening earlier, extending their hours, and hiring more staff to serve the influx of birders. 

We've also collected and disseminated economic impact and travel data from visiting birders. Our data has shown that birders visiting this region of northwest Ohio in April and May spend more than 30 million dollars when they're here watching birds, findings backed-up by a recent birding economic impact study conducted by Bowling Green State University. When you can present that level of economic impact it makes conservation of bird habitat relevant to an entirely new group of stakeholders. We are being invited to speak before groups that we never thought we'd be speaking to about birds. And at every presentation and in every interview, we try to drive drove home the point that if we are not proper stewards of the habitat that brings the birds - we will jeopardize the financial swell that follows the birds and birders who come to enjoy them here in northwest Ohio. 
The take home message is always: Healthy Bird Habitat = Big Business. 

BSBO also works hard to weave conservation messages through the festival publications and presentations. As part of our conservation goals, we have been proudly featuring certified bird-friendly coffee from the Birds and Beans company during the event for the last three years.

Kenn and I have fallen in love with this coffee and the habitat it helps conserve, and it tastes great, too! A few years ago, we visited the Gaia Estate, a bird-friendly coffee plantation in Nicaragua to conduct bird surveys for Birds and Beans and we were blown away at the numbers of eastern and western migrants wintering on the plantation. Birds & Beans bought every bit of the Gaia Estate's crop this year for their Chestnut-sided Warbler blend!

Last year, Leica Sport Optics was on site as a major sponsor and they brewed and served Birds & Beans for us at BSBO. People loved it! We also convinced the Lodge where we headquartered the festival to push aside their Starbucks coffee bar and serve and sell Birds & Beans during the festival.  We made up posters, posted the logo all over the place, and I gave a presentation on the importance of selecting certified bird-friendly coffee -- all in an effort to try and help people fall in love with this coffee the way we have. AND IT WORKED!  Last year, we sold more than 1,000 pounds of Birds & Beans coffee during the festival and Ohio's sales rose by more than 88% in 2012! Isn't that cool?!?!  I wish every bird-related organization in this country would commit to serving only bird-friendly coffee at their events and conferences. It just seems right, don't you think?

While our overarching goal is to advance the cause of habitat conservation, we do our best to make sure that every person who registers for the Biggest Week has the time of their life and sees lots of beautiful birds, too! 
Blackburnian Warbler by Kenn Kaufman
  Maybe some of you reading this will come visit us this May. And when the festival is over, we'll make sure that your visit means something for the birds and the habitats they depend on. 

Happy Birding! 


Review: The Unfeathered Bird

The most fascinating book on birds has just been added to my library.

Katrina van Grouw takes away the feathers and displays the muscular system. Then she peels back the muscles to reveal the skeletal structures. She takes a closer look at bird skulls and feet. The artwork evokes the feeling of walking through a dinosaur museum marveling at each splendid exhibit or of finding an ancient DaVinci sketch and wondering if you need white gloves on to be turning pages. The illustrations are very interesting and morbidly cool. Many of the featherless illustrations have the birds posed in natural positions, sometimes in quirky poses, and sometimes in a form that I can only describe as roadkill position. I found the experience of perusing the pages to be humorous and yet moving.

van Grouw's text describing what she's showing in the artwork is equally wonderful and enlightening. The Unfeathered Bird reveals things about birds that you may never have imagined, like the coiled wind-pipe of the Trumpet Manucode. Amazing!

Interestingly, John Muir Laws recommends in his guide to drawing birds that successful bird artists must have an understanding of what is under the feathers. The same applies to birders. While this book is unlike any other bird book I've ever seen, it's a masterpiece of  art and knowledge. It will take you on a journey of discovery that will help you understand the history of evolution of birds as well as deepening your understanding and appreciation of modern day bird behavior.

Imagining van Grouw going about the grueling task of collecting, preparing, and posing the dead birds leads me to think that it would make for an impressive documentary.

Here are more details from the publisher, Princeton University Press:

There is more to a bird than simply feathers. And just because birds evolved from a single flying ancestor doesn't mean they are structurally all the same. With over 385 stunning drawings depicting 200 species, The Unfeathered Bird is a richly illustrated book on bird anatomy that offers refreshingly original insights into what goes on beneath the feathered surface. Each exquisite drawing is made from an actual specimen and reproduced in sumptuous large format. The birds are shown in lifelike positions and engaged in behavior typical of the species: an underwater view of the skeleton of a swimming loon, the musculature of a porpoising penguin, and an unfeathered sparrowhawk plucking its prey. Jargon-free and easily accessible to any reader, the lively text relates birds' anatomy to their lifestyle and evolution, examining such questions as why penguins are bigger than auks, whether harrier hawks really have double-jointed legs, and the difference between wing claws and wing spurs. A landmark in popular bird books, The Unfeathered Bird is a must for anyone who appreciates birds or bird art.
  • A unique book that bridges art, science, and history
  • Over 385 beautiful drawings, artistically arranged in a sumptuous large-format book
  • Accessible, jargon-free text--the only book on bird anatomy aimed at the general reader
  • Drawings and text all based on actual bird specimens
  • Includes most anatomically distinct bird groups
  • Many species never illustrated before
Katrina van Grouw is a former curator of the ornithological collections at London's Natural History Museum, a taxidermist, an experienced bird bander, a successful fine artist, and a graduate of the Royal College of Art. She is the author of Birds, a historical retrospective of bird art, published under her maiden name Katrina Cook. The creation of The Unfeathered Bird has been her lifetime's ambition.

Dealing with Birder Jealousy & Birding Blues

You know your birding is getting desperate when you are photographing crows behind branches in bad light.
Hi. My name is Bob and I'm suffering from birder jealousy and a bout of the birding blues. Being a socially-networked birder has it's price. Reading about and seeing photographs of all the great birds and great birding events going on, I long to be at every one of them. My own birding has been severely limited of late. The unsatisfied need for some birding adventure complicated by the usual stresses of life are killin' me. Add to that gloomy weather inversions and one can't but get a little depressed.

So, how does a birder deal with the birding blues? I can't say I'm an expert at dealing with these issues, but this is what I did the other day...and it helped!

Get outside! - I ditched out of work a little early to go birding at a nearby park while I waited to pick up my daughter from her after-school choir practice. That's where I digiscoped the pictures in this post. This little park isn't the best birding spot, but it's somewhat becoming a patch for me as I am able to visit it now and then. Finding a Cackling Goose amid the hordes of Canadas was a great pick-me-up, even if they flew before I could get a photo.

Cut off the negative self-talk in the ol' cabeza. Enjoy what you have instead of what you wish you had. - I took some deep breaths and decided - actually making the mental choice - to enjoy the abundance of American Robins and to be thrilled anew with their antics. The robin below posed for me on metal fence post, with wild rose bush buds blurred in the background. I chose to find beauty in this moment and my soul began to heal.
On the south-facing bank of a creek, the low-hanging winter sun had managed to warm and melt the snow providing forage for the flickers and robins. I paused to watch this Red-shafted Northern Flicker plunge his bill deep into the mud, wondering what in the world he was finding to eat in there. 
Consciously choosing to slow down and enjoy the moment with each regularly occurring species was just the remedy I needed. I couldn't help but laugh when the thought struck me that male Red-shafted Northern Flickers have big red mustaches, just like Yomesite Sam from Looney Toons. 
Later, as I sat parked in the school parking lot waiting for my daughter,  I decided to carry out a very aggressive birding game called "The Big 5-minutes!". How many birds could I see in five minutes from where I was parked? Several American Robins, a female Northern Flicker, a murder of crows, a tiny song bird in the shadows the flitted away before I could i.d. it, and several Mourning Doves erupting out of stand pine trees. And that was it. It was fun!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Better Be Safe! Better Call It In!

Any time you find a banded bird, even if its a common one like a Canada Goose, give these folks at the USGS a holler. I found a banded Yellow-eyed Junco a few weeks ago on Mt. Lemmon, and yesterday I heard back with a nifty certificate and some fun information about the bird. Now I feel like I know it so well! It's still only a hunch, but I'm pretty sure this bird's name is LeRoy. 

It's important to take notes or get a photo of all the bands (this particular bird had plenty) as the ordering and coloration of the bands tells the banders different specifics about each individual.

Meet LeRoy (also known as specimen 2030-27116). He is about four years old, he has yellow eyes, he was banded in July of 2011 by Dr. Conway, and he likes long walks on the beach.

Review of Bird Language with Jon Young

Bird Language With Jon Young
Jon Young is a birder, naturalist, and tracker who is an expert at bird language. He is the author of What the Robin Knows and has now produced Bird Language, a two-DVD set. These DVDs are designed to help you understand what birds voices mean and the behaviors associated with those voices.

Many birders are unaware of what different bird sounds mean and what their actions indicate. As Mr. Young says, "We don't have to know bird language to survive so we don't learn it."

In the DVD he explains these five voices:
  1. song
  2. companion call
  3. territorial aggression
  4. begging
  5. alarm
Besides covering voices, Mr. Young describes the various "shapes of alarms". These are the motions associated with causes that disrupt birds normal or "baseline" activities. The worst is the "bird plow", often caused by a human walking briskly and one that is well known among birders: the flushing of a group of birds. Other shapes will help you identify a trotting canine, a hunting cat, or a fast moving accipiter before they come on to the scene.

Each of the shapes is accompanied by an animation along with video clips of birds in action. A handy, laminated card is included with the DVD set, giving a quick reference to the various alarm shapes as well as an example of a "sit spot" used for studying bird language.
Rajah Watching "Bird Language"
This is our cat Rajah entranced by Bird Language
Mr. Young contends that to help learn bird language you should focus and learn five, or less, common species that you often see. He uses American Robin, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, wren (any wren), and towhee (spotted for him).

Each of these birds provides different qualities but they share a commonality that provide a great start to learning bird language. You can pick just about any song birds but avoid corvids (crows, ravens, jays).
Spotted Towhee
Spotted Towhee; Eastern Towhee works well too
The second DVD focuses on bird language groups. Five experts describe what is necessary to create a group bird sit. Group sits help cover an area more completely and discover information that would be missed if you were by yourself.

I loved reading What the Robin Knows and this DVD set really helps to make bird language more understandable and in the reach of all birders.

Bird Language is produced by Village Video.

- Eddie Callaway -

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

When Lightning Strikes...Twice in New Jersey!

On January 10 I got a text that a Greater White-fronted Goose was out at the reservoir near my home.  This  is a tough bird to get for the county each year, so I drove over to see if I could find it.  Frank Sencher Jr. was still on the bird, so it was an easy get.  We then decided to drive over to the other side of the reservoir to scope out the gulls before dark.

Hundreds of gulls were on an ice sheet near the boat launch, so we started to scan for Iceland Gulls or maybe something better.  That's when lighting struck!  While scanning the flock I quickly found a bird that was smaller than the Ring-billed Gulls, with a mostly plain yellow bill, greenish-yellow legs, and a dark eye.

I called over to Frank, "Hey, looks like I've got a Common Gull here."  He quickly confirmed the call, and started texting and calling other local birders.

Mew Gull 1-10-2013
Mew Gull, Spruce Run Reservoir, NJ photo Rob Fergus
Common Gull is either a European subspecies of Mew Gull (from western North America).  It had never been confirmed from New Jersey before, making this a first state record.  In the hour that we were able to watch it, almost a dozen other birders were able to get there and see the bird.  Just before sundown, the whole flock flew.  Despite repeated searching over the next week, the bird was not relocated.

In trying to explain the significance of this find to my nonbirding friends, I told them it is like the birding equivalent of pitching a no-hitter.  Most pitchers never get one.  Most of the time we can only dream of finding a new bird for a state or country.  It's a real treat to find something new.  I told my friends that this just doesn't happen very often.

And then it happened again.  Less than a week later!

My buddy Michael Rehman texted that he had a Barnacle Goose out at the same reservoir on January 16.  This was a bird I had been looking for all winter, and was on the top of my wish list for the county.  I was on my way to a funeral, so didn't have time to look very long that morning.  On my way home from the funeral, I stopped by the reservoir again.  No goose.  Driving out of the park, I saw a flock of juncos fly up off the shoulder of the road, so I pulled over to check them out.  As I watched the sparrows and juncos, a small bright brownish bird flew in to join them.  The bird was very bright, almost cinnamon colored.  In my binoculars I couldn't quite make out what it was.  I got out my scope and was able to see it for just a couple seconds in the scope before a car came by and the bird flushed--not to reappear.

With my scope, I could see that it was a bunting.  I checked the wingbars, which seemed brownish, and due to the short view, I thought it was probably an Indigo Bunting.  This would be a very good local winter record, so I told other birders about it.  I looked for it a few times over the next week, but couldn't find it.

Then Frank Sencher Jr. finally relocated it and photographed it a week later.  The photos showed the bird better than I had seen it, and seemed to show that it wasn't an Indigo Bunting, but a young Lazuli Bunting--another bird never confirmed from New Jersey!  The next morning even better photos were obtained by others, then the bird spent the rest of the week hiding from eager birders.

Lazuli Bunting
Lazuli Bunting, Spruce Run Reservoir, NJ, photo by Sam Galick.
So I've had quite a month so far!  Potentially back to back first state records.  It's like pitching back to back no-hitters.  And just like a no-hitter, nobody can do it by themselves.  A pitcher needs a catcher to catch his pitches, and fielders to snag those balls that get hit for potential base hits.  Frank Sencher and I tag teamed these two birds, and others helped confirm the sightings with their own observations and photos.  Birding is a team sport after all!  And more than anything, Birding is Fun!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bird Photography for Birders

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Indigo Bunting
My love of nature began when my father gave me a camera to stick in front of my face.  I was probably 7-8 years old when my father let me use his old Nikkormat camera as we walked around Mt. Diablo in California. In my adult years, though, I have become more interested in wildlife and bird photography, and eventually, birding.  These two interests of mine I believe have been mutually beneficial.  I've found that as I've learned more about birds and birding, I take better photographs--I've learned more about my subjects.  But I've also found that responsible photography has made me a better birder.  I still think of birding as a photographer, and it's become helpful for me to think of four basic types or uses for bird photography.  There are no sharp divisions between these, and they may overlap considerably.  But I think these four purposes for bird photography can be very helpful to any bird photographer or birder with a camera.

1.  Identification
At the most fundamental level, photography can be extremely useful in identifying birds.  After all, birds do not always stay put long enough to make and confirm an identification.  But if you get a photo, you can take your time to make sure you have the right identification. I usually toss these photos out if their only use to me is identification, with one exception.  If it's the only photo I have of a species, I'll keep it as what I call a "placeholder" photo; it holds the place of a good photograph of the species. I found the Louisiana Waterthrush below at Mead Gardens, and it's my only photo of the species.  When I found this bird, it stayed there only for a couple seconds before it flew off.  I was so glad to have taken this photo of the bird so that I could more clearly see the white supercilium.   And since I'm colorblind, it was nice to show this photo to someone with proper color vision to tell me that the rear flanks were buffy in color (I simply can't see it).

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Louisiana Waterthrush
Also, back-lit and side-lit birds can be difficult to identify in the field.  When a bird is back-lit, your eyes often cannot perceive colors or details, but with a camera, you can overexpose the shot to capture details you could not otherwise see with your eyes, binoculars or scope. I found the Merlin below at Marl Bed Flats near my home.  It was side-lit, and with my eyes, the bird was pretty dark.  I knew it was a small falcon, but Kestrels are much more common here.  So I over-exposed this shot by 1 stop so that I could clearly see that in fact I was looking at a Merlin.

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But be careful.  Photography can also obscure some field marks, especially those that are behavioral.  For instance, one way to tell the difference between probing dowitchers is to look at their backs.  Probing Long-billed Dowitchers have a hunched back look, as if the bird "swallowed a grapefruit."  But photographs of dowitchers stop the motion of the bird's probing, and it may just capture a Long-billed Dowitcher without that trait or a Short-billed Dowitcher with it.  So while photography for identification is extremely helpful, some field marks are best seen in the field.

2.  Documentation
Beyond merely helping identify a bird, photography can be extremely useful for documenting a bird's presence.  Obviously this assumes a certain level of honesty on the part of a photographer, but photos can be extremely helpful. For instance, we see many Palm Warblers in Central Florida over the winter, but most of them are of the "western" variety.  Eastern or "yellow" Palm Warblers are much more unusual.  So when I see one, I always like to document their presence with a photo if I can.

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Palm Warbler
Of course, documentation is very helpful for vagrants and rare birds.  A couple days ago I rode my daughter's bike around the northeast section of Lake Apopka to look for a Brown-crested Flycatcher a friend of mine had seen there.  When I found it, I took many photos.  The background is cluttered, and there's a tree limb covering part of the tail, but I was happy to show the photographs of the bird anyway.

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Brown-crested Flycatcher
3.  Interpretation
I'm not just interested in seeing birds, I'm also interested in bird behavior.  I find their behavior fascinating.  And as a photographer, I love for my photographs to be interpretive of that behavior.  "Bird on a stick" photos can be wonderful, and I'm always happy to come home with one, especially a well-positioned bird with a clean background and simple composition.  But when a photo also interprets the bird's behavior and place in its environment, well, that's when I start to get pretty excited about bird photography.  I found this Loggerhead Shrike at Viera Wetlands back in 2011.  Shrikes impale their prey for at least three reasons: (1) they store their food for later, (2) over time the toxins in insects like lubber grasshoppers degrade so they don't become sick. And (3) lacking talons, they use barbed wire to hold their prey in place so that it can be consumed.  So I was ecstatic to see this shrike catch a grasshopper, impale it on barbed wire, rip off its legs, and then consume it in just a couple minutes.

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Loggerhead Shrike
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Loggerhead Shrike
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Loggerhead Shrike
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Loggerhead Shrike
4.  Artistic Expression
Art is a difficult idea to define, and there are many different ways people define it, but I suspect we can all agree that art is the product of creativity that expresses something beautifully.  I'm not one to divorce art from documentation or interpretation.  Art can take many different forms and serve a variety of different purposes, so I accept that journalistic photographs can be just as artistic as fine art paintings.  But whenever I go out into the field, my hope is to come home with something that has artistic quality to it. For me this means paying attention to form, color, composition, exposure, lighting, sharpness, angle of view, etc. to create a photograph that I would love to hang on my wall as a work of art.

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Cooper's Hawk
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Reddish Egret
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Roseate Spoonbill
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Black-bellied Whistling Duck
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Green Heron
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Sandhill Cranes
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Eastern Meadowlark
Scott Simmons

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Exercising The Ol' Birding Brain

Living up here in the migratory north, Canadian birdwatchers actually need two separate birding brains. We have a winter one, and then a summer one. Each spring you can almost hear the creaks as the summer brain comes to life, straining to identify that strange bird that turns out to be (AGAIN) a female Red-winged Blackbird.

The winter brain is more relaxed. We know these birds as they're with us all year. About the end of December though, birders start longing for a glimpse of different birds. The summer brain is stirring below the surface...

The obvious answer is a vacation. Somewhere warm, sunny, and filled with birds you a) haven't seen for months or b) have never seen before. Welcome vacation birder brain.

For most of the winter I had been living in redpoll land, with daily visits from Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers and Black-capped chickadees. Tiny birds everywhere.
The last week of December, my husband and I made a quick trip to Sedona, Arizona. A three hour flight, and we were once again in the land of those beautiful red rocks, eager for some winter sunshine and Arizona birds.

Our first morning there, I hopped out of bed and looked out the window for a bird check. It was snowing. My birding brain stalled. Should I be looking for Arizona birds or Snow Buntings? With my mind still on redpoll alert, it took a few minutes to realize I wasn't going to find any.

Feeling like three kinds of a wimp, we hardy Canadians whined about the cold wet weather for three days. Then we made a break for it and went south to Phoenix.

By this time, my husband's cold had really settled in so he wasn't keen on a lot of activity. We made a short visit to the Desert Botanical Garden and were greeted by a Curve-billed Thrasher. At last! My birding brain finally began to catch up with where it was.
The day before we had to return home though, we hit bird nirvana at the Gilbert Water Ranch (GWR). We have been to Phoenix many times, and had somehow managed to miss this wondrous spot. Thanks to Laurence Butler who has written some excellent blog posts on this amazing place, it's now very high on my must-visit list.

The GWR is a water reclamation site with 8 large ponds, all surrounded by thick shrubs. We've been to similar sites in other locations, and the birding is always great. The key element at GWR though, is that at any given time, some of the ponds may be drained, or draining, or even dry. Mudflats! Water! Shrubs! Dirt!
Great Egret
Fluffy lil Black-chinned Hummingbird
Butter Buns
Gambel's Quail
They even have House Finches with their head on backwards. What a place!
It was brain (all of them) overload. The place was alive with birds, and I hardly knew where to look. I made a firm mental note to never again visit a new birding spot the day before going home. Being unable to return the following day was almost physically painful.

Now back in Calgary, the creaky old birding brain had to change course yet again. Did I just hear a mockingbird? Is that a Great Egret? No's a lump of snow. Oh look. A redpoll.

Having to change seasonal birding brains is hard enough, but try doing winter-summer-winter brain in the space of ten days.

Now I'm back in the land of frozen lakes.
Back in the land of snow covered mountains.
Back in the land of Snowy Owls.
Poor me.