Saturday, December 31, 2011

Love Me Some Snowy Owl!

Saturday December 31 2011

Guilty: I love birds. I'm rather rabid about the RAVENS, as many of you know, and I'm close to that state with owls, but I don't know that I'd call myself a 'birder' as I'm not particularly good at identifying species. Most little brown birds to me are lumped into the LBJ category - Little Brown Jobs. I know most about Ravens, and a bit about owls. I'd like to know much more about hawks than I do, and I'm learning more about eagles as I get to follow retired bird biologist Karen S around monitoring golden eagle nests.

Some birders travel around trying to fulfill their Life Bird List. I don't have a Life List, but if I did, today I saw my last bird that would be on that list - a Snowy Owl!!!! And I didn't have to journey to the Tundra to see one; there's a pair of Snowy Owls hanging out in Nampa Idaho, 50 minutes from home!

This momentous event is the result of a 'Snowy Owl Irruption', where, approximately every 3-5 years, Snowy Owls have left their home range, and have been sighted much further south. This winter so far, they've been seen around the Great Lakes, the West Coast, the East Cost, Seattle (one was sighted on a church roof in Ballard this week), Pennsylvania, Indiana, etc.

Often, a shortage of food causes birds to travel outside their home range, but this year a possible reason for the Snowy Owl irruption is an overabundance of lemmings, their main prey. One report says that there were so many lemmings this year in the North that a greater number of juvenile Snowy Owls survived their first year, which didn't leave enough lemmings to go around for all the adults and juveniles. Hence, a number of Snowy Owls have irrupted further south in search of food. The last irruption was in 2007.

Despite these 2 Snowies being rather harassed by zealous birders, and by non-birders (people have been trying to walk right up to them and chasing them away, and kids and dogs have been running around scaring them), they have been in Nampa for around 3 weeks in the same couple of fields. It is important to leave the birds alone, because juveniles are still learning the ropes of hunting (the Nampa male snowy is a juvenile), and by causing them stress and causing them to flee, it uses up precious energy they need for hunting, staying warm, and surviving the winter.

Fortunately today - after being harassed in the morning and driven from their usual field, the two Snowy Owls flew to another nearby muddy field, where they were far enough in the middle of it, that people were discouraged from approaching too close, and they were left alone to semi-snooze in the sun.

This is the juvenile male.

This is the female. She was sitting on an irrigation bank 200 feet away from the male.

Females are larger than males, and have more barring. Juvenile males have more barring, which disappears as the owl matures; some males can be almost pure white.

The Snowy Owls are the largest owls in North America. Unlike the Great Horned Owls, Long-eared Owls, and Screech Owls that are common around here, the Snowy Owl is primarily diurnal (active during the day). Their regular habitat is the Arctic Tundra. They primarily nest on the ground and hunt over open fields and grasslands.

A steady stream of people drove up and parked, and walked up to the fence with binoculars and spotting scopes and cameras. There were up to 20 of us at one time. You could see the birds as white spots in the field with the naked eye, but we shared with those who had brought nothing.

Looking through binos and the scopes, people were heard to say, "Oh my God!" (That was me.) "They're so beautiful!" (That was me.) "I want to pet one!" (Well, that was me also.) One woman flew to Nampa from Arizona, just to see these two birds! It was convenient that her daughter lived in Nampa, but the lady truly came just for the birds. She'd been to Alaska earlier this year to see a Snowy Owl, but didn't see any there.

What better way to celebrate the New Year with the sighting of this gorgeous bird! Now I don't even need to start a Life List!

This is the male scratching his head.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Mighty Mouth

Friday December 30 2011

Woe to the horse who gets in the way of Rushcreek Mac's Big Teeth!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

138,000 Horses Sentenced to Slaughter Death in 2012

Wednesday December 28 2011

If we can go by last year's statistics from the US Government Accountability Office report*, which estimated 138,000 US horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter, we can expect the same number of horses to go to slaughter in 2012.

But that won't happen in this country, because even though our government just paved the way for the return of US horse slaughter by lifting the ban on funding horse meat inspections, it likely won't happen any time soon.

But is this a victory or defeat? I suggest we ask one of the 138,000 horses that will, next year, be stuffed into an overcrowded, undersized double decker that's too small for the horse to stand upright, and shipped two thousand miles with no stops for food or water, unloaded at a Mexican slaughter plant, where his spine will be stabbed with ice-picks till a near-death state, and then ultimately cut up for meat once he dies.

From 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148 percent to Canada and 660 percent to Mexico. This is approximately the same number that were slaughtered in the US before it was banned here. Do the math again: the same number of horses are now slaughtered annually in Canada and (the majority) in Mexico as were slaughtered before slaughter was banned in the US in 2007. From the same report, horse neglect and abandonment has increased since 2007.*

I don't believe that anti-slaughter people favor this slaughter option in Canada and Mexico for all these horses every year; yet I have not heard this addressed by any of the anti-slaughter groups. If you are anti-slaughter in the US, do you consider yourself pro-slaughter in Canada and Mexico? That's how it sometimes comes across. (The cruelty of the some of the horse slaughter-in-Mexico debacle has been well documented - the brutal transportation to slaughter, the agonizing deaths many horses go through - look it up on the internet, I'm not providing the links here).

The concern for slaughtered horses only seems to come up when there's a possibility of it happening here in our back yard. NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard - does this apply to our unwanted horses? We don't want to deal with the problem? By not having horse slaughter plants in the US since 2007, the problem has been out of sight and out of mind, but it still happens. Is this what we want? It seems like that is the opposite of what we want.

I ask the anti-slaughter people: do you really consider this lifting of the slaughter ban a defeat? Or is the lifting of this ban on horse slaughter an opportunity, putting in your hands the power to push for humane slaughter for over a hundred thousand horses a year?

Read this sentence: there has always been horse slaughter, and there will always be horse slaughter for over 130,000 U.S. horses a year. You can choose to not like the statement, and you can choose to ignore it if you wish, but the fact does not go away. Horse slaughter still exists.

Read it again: Over 130,000 U.S. horses a year are slaughtered and will be slaughtered, either here in the US, or in Canada and Mexico.

Personally, I would like a happy fluffy ending for every one of the excess, unwanted 138,000 horses every year year, to be cared for comfortably the rest of their lives by somebody, but it's not happening. I would like excess breeding to stop, but it's not happening. I would like all people who own horses to humanely put their horses down when the time comes, but it doesn't happen.

The Thoroughbred industry has come a long way in finally recognizing the annual plight of thousands of unwanted racehorses after their racing careers are over, and actually doing something about it, because of the hard work of so many individuals and groups advocating for the racing industry to start taking some responsibility for the horses who work so hard to make the sport and who ARE the sport.

If all well-meaning anti-slaughter groups and anti-suffering groups put as much energy into providing a real alternative solution to the 138,000 horses going to slaughter in Canada and Mexico every year - such as the passage of laws and their enforcement for humane transportation to slaughter in the US, and the funding and passage of laws and their enforcement of slaughter inspectors in the US (to make sure stolen horses are not slaughtered and that the process is indeed conducted humanely) - as they do into being against slaughter but offering no viable alternative - 138,000 horses a year would face a more humane option of death. If the pro-slaughter groups would put their efforts into better US slaughterhouse solutions and the enforcement of the laws involving them (and some of these groups are doing just that), we would all accomplish something.

Will we let this opportunity to lessen the suffering, and sometimes torture of horses go? Do we prefer to continue ignoring the plight of 138,000 horses a year that will be slaughtered no matter where? Is it easier and more satisfying just to be angry and not look for a solution?

Whether we are anti-slaughter, or pro-slaughter, I believe we are ALL united in our desire to alleviate suffering for the horses we love. If horses must be slaughtered - and there will ALWAYS be horse slaughter - it is better that it is controlled and regulated and made more humane in our backyard, which we now once again have the power to implement, instead of in another country, where we have no say, or where we can look away, turn our backs and pretend it does not exist, or affect us.

By conveniently ignoring the hundred thousand horses a year dying in Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses, by closing our minds to the chance to provide and enforce humane, regulated slaughter here in the US, we are doing the opposite of what we really want: providing a compassionate ending to the lives of our wonderful friends.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Playing With Your Dinner

Tuesday December 27 2011

The Bates Creek golden eagles are hanging around the area, and I recently saw one of them standing on their nest, presumably adding sticks to it, rearranging the furniture, which is a good sign. Hopefully it means they will nest again in the spring.

Today I saw the pair of them flying above the rim. One of them had prey in its claw. As I watched through my binoculars, it dropped the prey in mid-flight, dove after it, caught it before it hit the ground, and flew up again.

I grabbed my camera, hoping it would happen again - and it did!

The prey is in the eagle's left foot.

As he hovers in the air, he shifts the prey to both feet,

then to his right foot.

then he drops it, and dives after it

He pulls up short because he's getting to close to the ground

and hangs above the ground, either watching his prey scuttle away, or just deciding he didn't really want it.

Off he flies toward the Owyhees with his partner.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Size Doesn't Matter

Monday December 19 2011

Even Little Monsters are Monsters too.

Especially when they are Big Brave Little Monsters, getting to know the Big Big Monsters.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Good Morning Owyhee II

Sunday December 18 2011

A few shots from a 10 degree Owyhee morning, as the horses return home from a night up the canyon.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Don't Mess With the Old Man

Friday December 16 2010

For many years, Krusty had ruled the Owyhee roost as undisputed herd boss. After he retired from endurance, he went to live with some friends, doing the occasional limited distance endurance ride, and teaching the daughter to ride.

When he returned to Owyhee in April 2010, the gentle giant found himself at the bottom of the totem pole, shunned by everybody, chased by everybody; even my low-man Stormy chased him away from the hay.

But Krusty bided his time, and has worked his way up to one of the herd-boss positions again. Not only that, he has been seen playing! (I am quite sure Jose the Social Director is ultimately responsible for that.)

Today, the old man was quite playful, showing his big teeth, pinning his ears, backing up into his adversaries, threatening them with his big butt.

He took on Jose…

And then he took on Batman…

And then he took on Jose again.

Krusty, grand old herd boss, gave them What For and showed them just how fierce he can be. (If he really wanted to be.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wild Horse Butte: Hoofin' It

Tuesday December 13 2011

We've passed beneath it many times on horseback, its cliffs safeguarding the mysteries above. Why is it called Wild Horse Butte? Who named it? It stands sentinel over the Oregon Trail on its south side, and the Snake River on the north. A large, old weathered cairn marks a point on the northeast rim, visible from far away up and down the Snake.

Did the pioneers name the butte? Did they see wild horses watching them from the cliffs as their slow wagons rolled by? There are rumors of an old spring or lake up on top.

While Jose has carried me enthusiastically around the base of Wild Horse Butte many times, I've often looked up and scrutinized it, searching for a way to hike up to the top that didn't involve ropes and pitons. On our last ride past there, the Owyhee Hallowed Weenies in October, I spied a route.

Carol and I hoofed it there on foot, approaching it from the southwest. We crossed the Oregon Trail that we ride along, and headed up a drainage chute where the cliffs had long given way to a steep but scramble-able path up onto the rim.

300 feet above the flats, we have a grand view of Owyhee: the broad Fossil Creek drainage to the southwest - which sweeps around both sides of Wild Horse Butte into the Snake River, and the snow-kissed Owyhee mountains at its head.

Castle Butte to the east marks the passage of the Snake River from its origins in Yellowstone National Park.

At this height, we are taller than the Canadian geese who fly in formations to the west (here they always seem to be flying west, to some mysterious tropical paradise in the wrong direction).

The blue ribbon of the Snake River splashes a striking vividness among the muted winter desert hues.

We see familiar landmarks in the distance, and from the different perspective of a bird: Fossil Butte, Sinker Creek; the Oregon Trail that leads into the West;

the Bates Creek and Pickett Creek drainages in the far distance. We try to decipher the desert puzzle from above, which hills we ride around, which washes we cross, which rims we follow.

Visitors of the two-legged earth-bound variety up here are probably rare; we startle a 4-legged deer and a canyon wren. The rabbits remain hidden in the sagebrush as we tromp their trails along the circumference of the butte.

It is 3 1/2 miles around the edge of the rim. Evidence that cows occasionally find their way up here are in the old cow pies and the cheat grass that has taken over the top of the butte, as it has most elsewhere in this country (a product of overgrazing).

Down feathers stuck to bushes are evidence of meals that are consumed up here: perhaps the diner was a prairie falcon or a golden eagle from the Snake River cliffs or Castle Butte territories.

When you walk with your own two feet, you get to know a place more intimately, appreciate it more, and start to think beneath the surface layers. Walking the top of Wild Horse Butte, you see hints of layers of sediment - a layer of iron, a layer of shore-sand, a layer of river-washed smooth stones, beneath the volcanic layers.

Looking down on the Snake River makes you wonder what it would have been like to see the creation of the Snake River Canyon, as the water from Bonneville Lake in Utah broke through its natural dam 15,000 years ago and rushed through this once flat desert.

And the more you see on foot, the more questions you come up with. We see scattered quartz crystals on random areas of the butte; why in these particular spots? (We finally default to the Raven explanation: it's the Ravens that place them there as artwork.)

And who built all the cairns on top? Some are small, the one is large and took some effort. Some of them are old, judging by the amount of moss growth on the stones. Are they ten years old? A hundred? The first stone on the bottom laid by pioneers in 1850, and the last stone on top laid by us today?

On the way down, two deer antlers left behind show that we are not the only ones who think this chute up onto the rim is a good way to climb to the top.

From the top, I saw the trails like I've never seen them before. From the trail next time, I'll never see Wild Horse Butte the same way again.

**A footnote:
My friend Karen S corrected me on one incorrect assumption:
"The Snake River Canyon already existed before the Bonneville flood.  The flood scoured out the canyon, maybe deepened it a bit and left it looking more or less like it does now.  The flood did not create a new canyon over flat land."
Thanks Karen!