Well, I’ve done it again. My brain has tricked me into seeing (at least briefly) something that wasn’t really there. Oh, something is usually there; just not what I wished and thought it was. Someone I was talking to on the phone this morning said she’d heard that someone else had just seen a snowy owl as she was leaving I-35 near Ames. I wasn’t far away and had only one short stop to make first. Unlike most owls, snowy owls are active in daylight. Even if it might have been actively hunting at mid morning, I thought that there was still a good chance it might be around the area where it had been seen. Grassland that they prefer to hunt in is pretty limited, and interstate intersections are some of the largest patches of permanent grass left in our area. Snowys often perch on the ground, and I saw a white spot along a field edge out in the distance. That spot became a snowy owl until I got close enough to see that it was only a plastic shopping bag snagged on a weed. I did the same thing several times on the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count back in mid December. A snowy owl had been sighted nearby the evening before. I still haven’t seen a real snowy owl this winter, even though many have been reported around the state. It makes me wonder if any of those were plastic bag owls.
Plastic bag owls aren’t the only fake sightings I’ve had this winter. I’m still amazed and thrilled to see wintering eagles almost any day. I recall as it if were yesterday the first time I saw a wild eagle about 60 years ago. My brother and I were out sledding near our home south of Story City. I looked up, and there was a bald eagle flying north up the river valley. It was many years before I saw another eagle in Iowa. A friend and I have had a number of fake eagle sightings this winter, plus quite a few real ones. The fake ones tend to occur on days after some snow has fallen. Eagles often perch high on trees where their dark bodies show up in the distance long before their white head and/or tail is visible. We’ve spotted eagles up to a mile away when they’re perched like that. Getting closer, white begins to show up on top; confirming our eagle sighting. Until we get close enough for the white head to become snow on top of a squirrel nest in that tree top. We’ve seen several squirrel nest eagles for every real one some days.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve never seen a wild bobcat or cougar in Iowa or anywhere else, for that matter. Bobcats are known to breed not that far away, and there have been a fair number of valid sightings in Story County. Cougars are rare even where they still live and breed, and are rarer yet in Iowa. Cougars have been seen and photographed not so far away in recent years, though. Many folks have seen large tracks in snow, sand or mud that they were pretty sure were cougar tracks. I have seen some of those tracks, too, and hoped that they would prove to be from one of the rare animals. A couple times I was nearly convinced that I was seeing real cougar sign, if not the actual animal. Careful inspection of the tracks has always shown them to be a large dog (or a wolf up north). Cougars never leave claw prints on the end of their toes when walking. Their round shaped paws are heavily furred and tend not to leave a great deal of detail in the track. Dog and wolf tracks are more oval in outline and typically show clear claw prints on the end of their toes.
I was watching birds at the feeder only a few minutes ago. Purple finch males sometimes show up in late winter. Their brilliant raspberry color is spectacular. I thought I finally had one when a particularly bright finch perched in the crab apple tree. It continued to be a purple finch until I found the binoculars and could see the browner feathers on top of its head. Oh well, it was a pretty house finch, anyway. And it was fun thinking I had a purple finch for a moment.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.