25 September 2017

Hail Harpy! (Ecuador): 17 Sept 2017

There are some bird species that seem to come from a higher plane of existence to all others around them; these absorb bird people in some way that often borders on the obsessive. These superior species are perhaps comparable to pieces of plumed art, which all agree are unique and special, and open to no objections to their senior status. These are nature’s avian icons. This can often be a very subjective choice, but with the Harpy Eagle, the word “iconic”, I am sure, would not be disputed by anyone with an interest in the feathered form. It is not just that it literally stands tall as disputably the largest eagle on Earth, it is also that it lives in remote regions of the mighty, and imposing Amazon jungle, where it’s range seems to stretch far and wide, but yet they still remain rarely seen, and always just out of reach. Unless there is a known nest at play
In my personal opinion, staked-out nests seem to be at an all-time low, due to politics (Venezuela), and abandonment (some of the recent Brazilian nests, for example). It is probably a fair reflection also that this lover of remote areas, away from the prying eyes of people, are finding a smaller world in which to live too. And so, demand for the eagle with the talons of a bear has risen exponentially in recent times. It was to this icon that we returned on this day…We had the nest, we just did not have the adult in our sights, just yet…
Following an enjoyable day in the company of a buffy juvenile Harpy Eagle, being the greedy birders that we are, we could not resist returning for another throw of the dice at finding the striking form of an adult Harpy. We awoke to a lack of rain, a good start, and enhanced our mood as we faced what we had by then nicknamed “Mount Gareno”, once more, (the steep hike to the secluded nest of the eagle). We set off as light quickly arose around us, and stopped little getting to the nest, with the local knowledge in hand that the female was said to remain roosting in the nesting tree only up until around 8-9am. 
We arrived at 8am, and after a quick scan were clear that on this day, she had not decided to remain until 9am after all; we could only see the hidden buffy form of the youngster sitting low in the nest, and not begging for food, indicating that perhaps the chance of an adult was rather unlikely in a while. And, to be clear, a while in “eagle land” may not be minutes, or even hours, but a day or more! Our mood sunk a little as we theorised this in our minds and spoke about it out loud. 
Then, out of the corner of our eyes a massive shape emerged silently from the forest canopy and glided effortlessly down on to the nest. Literally, The Eagle had Landed. This beautiful adult specimen stood in profile on the nest, and flew off soon after, when we realised the juvenile was ripping at a carcass in the nest, Which the adult must have dropped in with, but did so, so swiftly, we had missed this in the considerable adrenalin rush of being in the presence of one of the World’s most impressive avian predators. It took off sooner than we hoped, but then returned again, and sat on a branch alongside the nest calling enthusiastically, as we watched enthralled. Then it lifted off silently and vanished back into the forest, and the lair of its prey, monkeys and sloths.
However, the arrival of another birding group with Marcelo Andy perked us up, until American politics came up in conversation. However, an extremely cooperative Pavonine Quetzal soon drew us out of the political world and back into the natural world, as this scarlet and emerald gem sat above us calling. Then the high whistles of a Lanceolated Monklet, from the cute end of the puffbird family, peaked our interest, and we were soon watching one of a pair in full view of the juvenile Harpy Eagle. Life was not so bad after all…
The chick was transformed from its previous lethargic self, and vigorously attacked at the prey that had been left for it, while we desperately tried to identify it, but most of the time it was out of sight below the rim of the massive stick nest (the consensus seemed to veer towards squirrel monkey in the end). As it struggled with its fleshy meal it constantly called for help, but the adult showed no further sign of assistance, leaving its offspring to learn how to do this for itself. It may have laboured at this, but bits and pieces of monkey were digested over time. Once the monkey was mostly consumed, and activity died, we set off back for the lodge, with a spring in our step. I have seen Harpy on a number of occasions, but only once so well, and so splendidly, ironically at this very same site some 11 years previously.  
Our walk back was more than just filled with pleasant satisfaction at the eagle sighting, as we also saw a handsome Banded Antbird whistling to us from a fallen log, while just across the trail a Rusty-belted Tapaculo wandered within spitting distance (we did not spit at it though, to be clear!) Better still came with another Amazon Avian Classic: White-plumed Antbird, a species that seems to be better designed for cartoons than the rainforest, with its bizarre, immaculately trimmed ermine-toned plume. A few further Yellow-browed Antbirds were no less appreciated than they were the day before, and we also caught sight of a lekking Great-billed Hermit, by picking up the constant bobbing of the tail in timer with its incessant call. Once back at the lodge, we checked in on the Fiery Topazes in the lodge garden, which had returned for another afternoon performance, just before the curtain closed on an amazing day in the Amazon…
One more insane day followed, when we birded from 
Amazon to High Andes…

eBird List from this day

24 September 2017

Into the Heart of Darkness (Ecuador): 16th Sept. 2017

So, there I was, minding my own business, and planning an unspectacular weekend of going to gym, watching Premier League football (US=Soccer), and catching up on my eBird data for Borneo from this year’s tour. Not birding, but nothing to blog about; then I got THE call…

One of Tropical Birding’s clients was stranded in the Amazon without his luggage, which had come in a day late (thanks to American Airlines), and needed to be taken to him. The flight with his luggage arrived at midnight, and the drive to the Amazon was a 5-hour undertaking. A key element in all of this equation, was that the person was there at that time, for one very specific, and crucial objective, to photograph the pair of nesting Harpy Eagles. And so, after some extremely rapid preparation and reorganisation of the weekend, (e.g. loading Eastern Ecuador bird recordings on to I-Pods that were still holding bird calls from my most recent tour in Indonesia, of no use whatsoever to where I was heading, desperately charging batteries, knowing I was heading to a remote corner of Amazonian where electricity is virtually nil etc.), there I was meeting a driver and some luggage in the dark of night in Quito, and then heading even deeper into a darker night still in the Amazon, where streetlights gave way to stars, and population of people thinned to almost nothing but a few scattered shacks in the darkness.

We arrived, to find we had narrowly missed fellow Tropical Birding guide Jose Illanes and his luggage-less tour participant heading off for the Harpy Eagle nest for the day. The local manager of the lodge, (Pedro Aguinda) – Gareno Lodge – made matters only more perturbing, when he casually informed me that it was imperative that if I wanted to see an adult Harpy that we head off for the nest as soon as possible, as the adult at that time tended to head out for most of the day by 9am. It was now 7am and I had a gruelling 6km (3.7 miles) walk ahead of me, or to put it another way, a minimum 2-hour trek. Now, if you have visited some of the Napo Lodges in Ecuador (e.g. Sacha, Sani, Napo Wildlife Center), you probably have an image of an Amazon jungle that is wonderfully flat, if muddy and slippery, to walk among. That image does not apply to Gareno. Hilly is a much more appropriate word, making this much more of a trudge than a casual walk or light hike. To make matters worse still, a short way into the walk the rainforest lived up to its name, and brought its rain, lots and lots of it. However, I finally connected with Jose and Gerold, bundled up against the inclement weather, during this, the alleged dry season for the area, while the forest around us remained dark, like dawn had not yet fully shed its skin. Finally, we made it up to the top of the slick and slippery hill, which overlooked the nest of this giant forest eagle, (that vies with the Asian Philippine Monkey-eating Eagle and Steller’s Sea-Eagles for title of world’s largest).

Whilst I caught my breath, following the final exhausting climb to the viewpoint, Jose was just ahead and confirmed the adult was standing alongside the cream-coloured chick at the nest. However, by the time Gerold and I had returned to “birdable state” (i.e. caught our breath back), the adult had departed, leaving the soggy and forlorn chick behind. We spent a good deal of the day there photographing this still impressive bird, starting to look in size similar to an adult at this time, and waiting impatiently for a more strikingly patterned adult to silently reappear from the depths of the surrounding forest. However, after a 9am-2:30pm vigil, and still soaked through from the both the morning’s foul weather and demanding slog through the humid jungle, we decided to return to the lodge, and return to the quest the following day instead. It had been an enchanting time with the young Harpy Eagle, (that even shared the tree with a couple of inquisitive Bare-nacked Fruitcrows at one point) but we yearned for an adult to satisfy our greedy desires. As we strolled our way back through a dripping jungle, (but at least now not raining), we picked up a few classic Amazonian species, including cracking looks at both Golden-headed and Blue-backed Manakins, and the always appealing Yellow-browed Antbird, which is much more abundant here than some of the more familiar Amazonian lodges in the country. Cinereous Mourner was also another piece of good work by Jose, but got less plaudits than the others, its overall drabness letting down its status of scarcity.

Once back at the lodge, we got news from hawk-eyed Pedro that neither the usual Crested Owl or “reliable” roosting Rufous Potoos were reliable anymore, and were absent from their usual sleeping abodes. A plan was hatched to try to see the potoo by night, usually a much more challenging feat to achieve. However, the late afternoon brought us one of the highlights of the entire day (even with a Harpy involved, yes!); when a pair of dueling male Fiery Topaz hummingbirds were watched from the lodge cabins at length, as they danced and swirled in the shadows, gleaming iridescent crimson and jade in doing so. Gerold could not have put it better, and so I will quote him “This MUST be one of the best birds in the World”, and after seeing them like this, I am in no position to disagree: exquisite, simply stunning, and my best looks ever. There are simply not enough superlatives in the English language for this species in the right light conditions.  Photos, however, were prevented by the dark conditions of the regular perches of these rare forest hummingbirds.

You would think this was enough for one day, but the night held more, and so into the Heart of Darkness we went once more. By the evening, I was on my last legs, having had a sleepless night getting into the Amazon through the night, combined with the arduous hike, I was truly spent. But, birds have a way of injecting energy into me that comes out of little else, (rather like following a full and substantial meal, there is always a sliver left in you for an irresistible desert to squeeze inside). We could tell that Rufous Potoo was niggling Pedro, as he prided himself on finding this for every single birding group that visits Gareno during the daytime, which he, (until then) held a 100% record with. We set off just prior to full darkness, and entered the forest interior once more after darkness had fallen, with Pedro displaying that particular focus that comes with birding your own special patch of birding land. Soon after the potoo call was played a distant reply came back to us, but it gave no inclination of coming in any closer, and remained frustratingly down slope from us, and the incline was considerable. Pedro, with his trademark cowboy boots (apparently dating back to a past fashion decades ago in the Amazon), stepped downhill like it was nothing, and soon after announced he had the bird! We slipped, slided, and cursed our way down to him, and stared right into the eyes of a Rufous Potoo standing sentry on a dead snag in the forest understorey, which remained there until we left some time later.
Supper was calling, and soon we ate and headed for retirement, after a long, exciting, yet punishing day. However, the night chorus held a bird’s voice within it that peaked my interest: Nocturnal Curassow, one of the Amazon’s true wraiths. Its deep sounds can be readily heard at certain chosen locales only, although even there catching sight of this species has always been something of a contest, comparable to birding Olympics. However, I had one important weapon on my side, Jose Illanes, an Amazonian with a legendary ability to see something out of nothing, by night or day, (and perhaps even blindfolded!) The bird did indeed, prove a considerable battle to find, drawing us well inside the forest, with no trail in sight, and onto yet another precipitous slope, and that is where Jose found a window into the canopy of the trees, and spotted the rufous form of a Nocturnal Curassow sitting quietly above us. A magical end to a day that only the Amazon can provide, and in the company of some truly great Amazonians!

(I apologize for the extremely poor quality of the photo of the curassow, but merely seeing this bird was incredible, and I needed to post the photo to make myself believe that I actually did see one!)

More to come from the Amazon soon. Our Adventure did not end there, far from it…

eBird lists: 
eBird List 1 Gareno Lodge Ecuador 16 Sept 2017
eBird List 2 Gareno Lodge Ecuador 16 Sept 2017

04 November 2016

Stag Do…YELLOWSTONE, USA (13 Oct)


This trip to Yellowstone had held two objectives for me; to see a swathe of North American mammals, many of which I had not yet seen, and to try and find a Great Grey Owl. On both fronts the trip had been an unquestionable success. I had thought there was a good chance we could miss the owl – the Internet is flooded with people whod experienced this as a foreboding warning, and so I was well aware that was not a given. However, we had accomplished arguably our most challenging task, and I had seen almost all of the mammals in the park that I had not yet seen before (i.e. Black and Grizzly Bears, and Bison). However, there was one glaring omission on our mammal list, and one that Yellowstone is especially famed for: Wolf. In spite of travel to various continents, I was still wolfless, (I have never managed to catch up with the Tibetan one on my travels to the Far East). Seeing Wolves in Yellowstone is said to be not that difficult with the aid of a good scope (check, I had my trusty Swarovski along for this reason), and being observant of human behavior. For in the park there is a pack of people, lets call them Wolfers or the Wolf Pack, who have dedicated their time to tracking the wolves, and know the individual groups and animals. By observing the wolfers, you have a good chance of finding the wolves themselves. The known park hotspots for the wolves are the Lamar Valley and the Hayden Valley. The day before we had arrived at the Lamar a little tardy – we fancied a hot breakfast after all – only to find out a wolf pack had crossed the road shortly before our arrival! Thus, on this day we skipped breakfast and were in the Lamar Valley early. However, we were not alone, the Wolfers and their followers were out in force too, and this could only be good news. If the Wolfers are absent, the chances are, so are the Wolves, as this subgroup of animal watchers are connected by high tech radio, and are rarely far from their mammalian muse. Like us, they came armed with top end scopes for the job, and they were clearly trained on something as we arrived. Soon enough, we were able to watch a pack of 8 Wolves lolling about on the hillside. They were a quarter of a mile away, but fantastic to see howling with the scope trained on them. The group consisted of 5 black animals and 3 grey ones. I would dearly loved to have photographed them, but all the same, I had my wolf.

Having put another mammal to bed, the day was more relaxed from then on. We tried to track down a Moose, but in spite of checking known hotspots, which even included the yard of a small town church, this beast proved elusive, in spite of its considerable size. In the afternoon, as our time in Yellowstone was slowly drawing to a close, we finally came upon a Pronghorn, which did not display its usual speedy prowess, and calmly foraged by the road, making for a great chance to photograph a lone male. I lingered a little longer than was probably healthy with this animal, and was made to pay, when we re-met with Jim Chagares, who had just seen a Black Bear moments before. 
Our check of this area, did yield the same ram Bighorn Sheep from a few days before (photos were taken then), but no Black Bear, which appeared to be undergoing a particularly elusive spell during our time in Yellowstone. When leaving a place that has left indelible memories and brought great times, (like this Coyote from a few days before there), you always wish for a finale, a curtain call, something to leave you heading home with a feeling of ultimate fulfillment. And so it was with Yellowstone; as we neared leaving the park, there on the road verge was a magnificent male Elk, with the widest load available. Its rack must have measured six feet across, which made it in the upper realms for the species. This was the end we craved, and we left soon after, knowing full well we had left somewhere very special behind us. 

As we left Gardiner, Montana, the next day for Bozeman airport, we stopped in on the local Grizzly Bear cubs, which were not feeding as close to the road as they had been a few days before, when this photo was taken...

29 October 2016

Grey Day…YELLOWSTONE, USA (11 Oct.)

The colour of this day in Yellowstone was undoubtedly grey, but that is not to say it was dull; far from it. Having spent considerable time unsuccessfully probing sites from Canyon to Bridge Bay for Great Grey Owl the day before, this then became our raison d’etre for this day. While we were unreservedly grateful for having seen one a few days before, and the views had been unquestionably good, they were cut short when the owl took off earlier than we’d hoped, leaving us yearning deeply for more. We set off in chilly conditions back to the forest meadows near Canyon. Having found no sign of the “Grey Ghost” at the first meadow, we walked deeper into the woods, hoping to find it perched inside instead, and a known hangout for the species. This method failed too, and so Nick Athanas and I worked our way along the road to the next set of meadows. This constituted two meadows dissected by the road that runs through the park. I took one side of the road, while Nick took the other. I had barely worked my way down into “my” meadow, when I heard Nick’s raised voice summoning me from the other side. I hurried across the road and was quickly by Nick’s side, staring at an impressive grey shape perched on a precarious snag, which appeared barely capable of bearing the weight of this large beast. 
Great Grey Owls are reputed to be fearless, something that was not evident from our previous sighting, but became apparent over the next two hours when we watched it showing absolutely no signs of anxiety from the comings and goings of various people reacting to a small crowd gathered in a roadside meadow, and then reacting more lucidly to the owl itself. As we viewed this magnificent owl within clear view of passers by, it did not take long for a small crowd to gather in its wake, which enjoyed watching it while snow fell gently around it, making it a sight to behold. However, once the owl moved into the woods behind, the throng soon disbanded, and after finding it sitting imperially within the forest, we had it all to ourselves for as long as we wanted it. This was the view I had craved, and I was thoroughly satiated. Forgive my fixation with this bird, but it stands head and shoulder above anything else I have seen this year, and ranks up there within my all-time top ten birds, so I am going to milk it, while I can!
 
The weather on this day was topsy-turvy, snow accompanying parts, while other parts were bathed in sunshine, with cerulean skies! In the middle of the day, within the higher reaches of the park, a sudden and particularly heavy snowfall, left some American Bison carrying a soft white burden on their hides, making for a magical scene. 
At lunchtime we left the snow largely behind, but still experienced bone-chilling temperatures. Not what we desired for an open air picnic lunch in a campsite! We had not even managed to make our first sandwiches, when one of the local camp raiders – Grey Jays – swooped in and gobbled up some of our unintended crumbs. I had heard tales of this species being commonly referred to as “Camp Robbers”, due to their larcenous nature, but this was my first direct experience of it, which made for a great, impromptu, photo shoot!

27 October 2016

Bear Necessities…YELLOWSTONE USA (10 Oct)


As all good wildlife people know it pays to be out early (and late), as that is often when animals or birds are most active in a place like Yellowstone National Park. And so, we left the hotel in the dark and pulled up at the picturesque spot of Swan Lake as the sky was blushed pink, signifying the arrival of dawn. It was a beautiful and tranquil scene; all was calm, save for a few ripples on the lake caused by the early morning movements of a pair of Trumpeter Swans disturbing the glassy surface of the water. 
Few other animals were in evidence though, so, once dawn had made way for daytime, we continued on to a must-see site within the parkOld Faithful, the largest cone geyser in the World, which can reach over 130 feet on occasions. However, our progress to this explosive spot was halted when a classic Yellowstone sight blocked our way, and peaked our interest: a huddle of cars was stopped untidily on the roadside. In Yellowstone, this is often the easiest path to seeing wildlife; drive slowly, scouring the roads for human indications of other animals. This particular jam had been caused by a sow Grizzly Bear that had brought her cub up to the roadside to forage. Bears are busy at this time fattening up for the onset of winter, when they go into hibernation for the hardiest months. The car huddle was soon tidied up by a zealous park ranger (sadly they are often a little overzealous there), and we watched as the pair of bears slowly made their way out of sight of the road.
Arriving at Old Faithful, we found a series of seats (a permanent fixture) had been set up, not unlike a sporting event, for witnessing the geysers famously regular eruptions. We also found TV screens predicting when the next performance would be: 12:10pm. The geyser erupts every 70 minutes or so through the day, and while not quite as faithful as it used to be, it still remains predictable enough. On arriving at the site, well before the next spurt, we found the seating to be largely empty, but come midday, they were packed with hundreds of people; an expectant crowd, committed to the time that the screens had informed them of. This was proven to be pretty accurate, when Old Faithful went off within a few minutes of the scheduled time, an impressive sight greeted with all the delight of a sporting crowd, if a little quieter. No Mexican Waves were observed, but plenty of celebration ensued. 
For lunch, we stopped off at a campsite, hoping for a Gray Jay or one of the parks plentiful Clarks Nutcrackers to come in and investigate our picnic spread, but instead just getting a murder of crows. Or more specifically, a pair of Common Ravens, seemingly one of the most abundant species in the park at this time, when many of the breeding species have vacated Yellowstone for the winter.
Much of the rest of our day was spent fruitlessly searching for another Great Grey Owl, at other hallowed spots in the park, with no reward. As we perused the park though we came upon the regular, quintessential scenes of mighty Bison grazing on the road verges, and kept our eyes out for other animals. We stopped in on a regular pair of Grizzly Bears at another spot, which had become so reliable, they have come to name the mother bear (Strawberry), although for some reason, the cub she was with bore no name. We ended the day outside the park, and in another state, for on leaving the park each day, we crossed out of Wyoming and back into Montana. Near the town of Gardiner, where we were staying, we checked in on a local pair of wild, orphaned Grizzly Bear cubs, which were fortunately feeding close to the road, as the day began to wane. On the way back to Gardiner, a recent roadside deer kill was being attended by Americas largest raptor, a Golden Eagle to close the day.

Bear Necessities…YELLOWSTONE USA (10 Oct)


As all good wildlife people know it pays to be out early (and late), as that is often when animals or birds are most active in a place like Yellowstone National Park. And so, we left the hotel in the dark and pulled up at the picturesque spot of Swan Lake as the sky was blushed pink, signifying the arrival of dawn. It was a beautiful and tranquil scene; all was calm, save for a few ripples on the lake caused by the early morning movements of a pair of Trumpeter Swans disturbing the glassy surface of the water. 
Few other animals were in evidence though, so, once dawn had made way for daytime, we continued on to a must-see site within the parkOld Faithful, the largest cone geyser in the World, which can reach over 130 feet on occasions. However, our progress to this explosive spot was halted when a classic Yellowstone sight blocked our way, and peaked our interest: a huddle of cars was stopped untidily on the roadside. In Yellowstone, this is often the easiest path to seeing wildlife; drive slowly, scouring the roads for human indications of other animals. This particular jam had been caused by a sow Grizzly Bear that had brought her cub up to the roadside to forage. Bears are busy at this time fattening up for the onset of winter, when they go into hibernation for the hardiest months. The car huddle was soon tidied up by a zealous park ranger (sadly they are often a little overzealous there), and we watched as the pair of bears slowly made their way out of sight of the road.
Arriving at Old Faithful, we found a series of seats (a permanent fixture) had been set up, not unlike a sporting event, for witnessing the geysers famously regular eruptions. We also found TV screens predicting when the next performance would be: 12:10pm. The geyser erupts every 70 minutes or so through the day, and while not quite as faithful as it used to be, it still remains predictable enough. On arriving at the site, well before the next spurt, we found the seating to be largely empty, but come midday, they were packed with hundreds of people; an expectant crowd, committed to the time that the screens had informed them of. This was proven to be pretty accurate, when Old Faithful went off within a few minutes of the scheduled time, an impressive sight greeted with all the delight of a sporting crowd, if a little quieter. No Mexican Waves were observed, but plenty of celebration ensued. 
For lunch, we stopped off at a campsite, hoping for a Gray Jay or one of the parks plentiful Clarks Nutcrackers to come in and investigate our picnic spread, but instead just getting a murder of crows. Or more specifically, a pair of Common Ravens, seemingly one of the most abundant species in the park at this time, when many of the breeding species have vacated Yellowstone for the winter.
Much of the rest of our day was spent fruitlessly searching for another Great Grey Owl, at other hallowed spots in the park, with no reward. As we perused the park though we came upon the regular, quintessential scenes of mighty Bison grazing on the road verges, and kept our eyes out for other animals. We stopped in on a regular pair of Grizzly Bears at another spot, which had become so reliable, they have come to name the mother bear (Strawberry), although for some reason, the cub she was with bore no name. We ended the day outside the park, and in another state, for on leaving the park each day, we crossed out of Wyoming and back into Montana. Near the town of Gardiner, where we were staying, we checked in on a local pair of wild, orphaned Grizzly Bear cubs, which were fortunately feeding close to the road, as the day began to wane. On the way back to Gardiner, a recent roadside deer kill was being attended by Americas largest raptor, a Golden Eagle to close the day.

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24 October 2016

A Ghost No More…YELLOWSTONE USA (9 Oct)

I have been a birder for more than thirty years, and for much of that time I have held Owls to a higher plane than most other birds. Like many who came before me, this group grabs my attention like no other. While all owls create a buzz amongst addicts like me, big owls have an altogether greater lure to them. The largest owl in North America is the Great Grey Owl. This has a distribution that spreads into Europe too, but in spite of me being from that continent, I have never been in a position to try for one. For the past 11 years I have heard gripping tales of the classic 2005 North American invasion, where people have informed me they were able to see dozens in a single day, and others even boasted of triple figures! All I needed was just one. I vowed that I would sit and wait for the next invasion, and then I would make my move. Eleven years of impatiently waiting later, and plentiful torment from these legendary tales that have become entrenched within birding folklore, my patience had worn out. As soon as Iain Campbell suggested a fall trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had only one thing in my crosshairs. In the run-up to the trip, I had plowed through eBird to try and work out our best strategy for getting this ashen beast, and put out requests for information on Facebook. The initial news was good - a Great Grey has been regular at Bridge Bay in Yellowstone for much of early autumn and was looking good for us, but then tragedy struck, and this rather cooperative individual turned up deceased, having been accidentally hit by a car. Research going back over the years, revealed regular spots, like Canyon, inside the park, but they were often accompanied by phrases such as theyre always there, just hard to find, and other less encouraging statements, which illustrated that in all likelihood we would leave Yellowstone without one. This was echoed by Greg Millers experience in the acclaimed book The Big Year, where he only narrowed scored this Phantom of the North in the last leg of his mammoth year. While I tried to prepare myself mentally for not getting one, I could not stop images of this dramatic owl from dominating my thoughts in the run up to the trip. This was only intensified, when we ran into Jim Chagares the evening before, who scrolled through a series of spectacular photos of the recently deceased individual. However, he had better news in that hed seen another the evening before, in none other than Canyon, where so many had previously mentioned to try for it. We met at a chilling dawn and drove straight to the spruce-fringed meadow, where hed laid eyes on it only the evening before. A quick sweep of the meadow revealed nothing more than a meadow; devoid of prominently perched owls, and devoid of birds in general, save for the odd raven on the wing, passing overhead. We drove between spots, giving them seemingly cursory glances, and turning up nothing. Then Jim swung his car swiftly into a layby, and tensions were heightened; there off in the distance was a large grey shape sitting on a small spruce, which appeared as if it should be straining under the weight of this huge owl. Jim was calm; I was not. He informed me it would sit there, as they often do, even when confronted by a long line of staring admirers, as can happen in a busy place like Yellowstone. Jim was aware of this, but the owl was seemingly unaware of this, as it promptly took off, and nose-dived into the nearest woods, soon becoming invisible to us. This sent shivers of terror down my spine, for I had not even glared into its eyes by this point, something that is necessary for any bird, but especially alluring with owls that hold a stare like no other group of birds. My nerves were shredded, as the glory that had been expected at my first sighting of a long-awaited owl was completely absent, replaced instead with complete dissatisfaction and disappointment. We walked into the meadow and nearby woods hoping to relocate the fiend, but came up empty. Jim showed surprise at this abnormal behavior, and I was racked with horror. We needed to split up, and soon did. Several times, following the split, a large grey shape emerged from the trees and then buried itself out of sight. The size of the bird in flight was impressive, but its eyes, and that remarkable stare remained frustratingly elusive. 
The curious thing was it appeared not to be reacting to us, and taking flight as a result of any of our actions, but seemed to be looking for a place where it was happy to hunt, and so far that was not in sight of us. Finally, after several more snatches of the bird in the air, it drifted across the road and seemed to drop into a narrow forest gully. Nick Athanas and I hurried to the spot, and were stopped cold, when we found it staring right back at us, perched in a pine, and looking every bit as impressive as it always promised to be in my inner thoughts. We spent a memorable 20 minutes or so with the bird, which at one point pounced with menace into the grass, emerging with nothing obvious. Soon after it took off, and in spite of us feeling we might refind it again, did not manage to relocate it after all. Up until this point in time if youd asked me for my personal Bird of the Year, my immediate answer would be the Northern Saw-whet Owl, which I watched at 4am on crisp April morning on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; however, now its title was in serious jeopardy. If Id had just a tad more time with the Grey Ghost the title would have been a shoe-in, but I felt it left me greedily yearning for more, and we vowed to search again for it in our coming days in Yellowstone