Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Snowy Owling Adventure

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My most recent snowy owl was in the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore in September 2010. Yes, it was inside a zoo in Asia! Not really thrilling to see—actually kind of depressing. And even though our winter this year in Ohio has been fairly mild (recent days excepted), it was actually getting kind of depressing, too.

Sunday, January 22 promised to offer a break in the harsh, icy winter weather we'd been enjoying in Ohio, so I decided to mount an expedition northward looking for special birds. This has become an annual ritual—as if giving myself over to the colder, more wintry northern latitudes could help break the spell of my winter lassitude. Last year it was Bohemian waxwings, recently named my Bird of the Year in a vote that made the recent political primaries look like nap time in Romper Room.

Before the warmer air mass moved in and melted all the ice, things were mighty cold and drab around the farm.

This year I would try to find the great white invader of the North: the snowy owl. I have a special connection to this species. The snowy owl was my spark bird way back in November of 1968, when one flew into our front yard in Pella, Iowa. That's the first bird I remember seeing and identifying myself. It sparked my interest in birds and bird watching and I've watched birds ever since.

Flashing back to the now... The winter of 2011-2012 has been a well-documented invasion year for snowy owls. And there is some debate about what causes this phenomenon. Is it a super abundance of food (lemmings, primarily) last summer that resulted in lots more baby snowies surviving to fledging? Is it a crash in the lemming population that forces starving snowies of all ages south in search of sustenance? Or does it just happen randomly every other decade or so? According to the experts, we don't really know.

My last Ohio snowy owl was in November 2001.

No matter the reason for the invasion, I was determined to try to see at least one snowy owl this winter. I missed the big influx of great gray owls a few years ago, which was a bummer. Wanting very much to ensure success, I called a hotshot birder in northern Ohio, Jen Brumfield. As I suspected, Jen had the hook-up. We made plans and I began spreading the word that I was heading north.

Funny thing about big birding excursions... they sound a lot more appealing when you first hear about them than they actually are when it's time to get your rump in gear and go. I asked 14 of my fellow birders—some of whom are actual relatives of mine—and all of whom had expressed enthusiasm for this mission—to come along. I envisioned a giant caravan of cars, all packed sensibly with bird watchers who were giddy at the prospects of the day. In the end only two friends joined us (three if you count Julie, who really had no choice). And these two friends, Kelly and Daniel, are brand new bird watchers. I complimented them on their courage. It would, after all, be at least eight hours in the car, with low temperatures—probably as cold as the dangly parts of a brass monkey, and we might completely strike out! They were undaunted.

We left home at 7:30, met our pals at 8, gassed up, and hit the road headed north. Our destination was to be a field near an airport in Cleveland. Kelly and Daniel asked questions and shared observations about owls and other birds as we drove. About an hour from our destination my cell phone rang and it was son Liam, part of the slugabed stay-at-homers in our family. He had a message to relay: "Jen called and she's at the spot looking at the snowy owl right now!"

I stomped on the accelerator.

We got there in record time, found Jen, and then cast our eyes upon the owl, about 200 yards distant. Oh glory be! Such a beauty! She turned, gazing one way then another.

We picked out details: she had tiny dark ear tufts, something we'd never noticed on other snowy owls. The back of her head showed markings that looked vaguely like a raptor face. Her eyes shone bright yellow in the late morning sun. Wow!

Jen told us the interesting story of how it had been found and what its habits seemed to be. Soon the owl floated to another spot, this one more out of our easy line of sight. So we talked of other birds. I was particularly interested in trying to see the vagrant black-tailed gull near Ashtabula, as long as we were this far north. Jen again had the latest intel, so, after watching our snowy owl for an additional 20 minutes, we headed for hot coffee, warm bathrooms, some food, and thence to the far northeast corner of Ohio.

to be continued.....

From left: Kelly, Jen, Julie, Daniel, happy snowy owl watchers.


On January 24, 2012 at 7:26 PM Laurence Butler said...

Sounds pretty "epic" to use the word of the year. I struck out in the Snowies when in New Hampshire for a few weeks (and no snow bunting neither). It must be a pretty fantastic feeling to see such a majestic and primordial creature.
I can't imagine having that as a spark bird, must've been fantastic!

On January 26, 2012 at 10:24 PM Kathie Brown said...

Bill, this is a bird species that seemed mythical to me and I figured i would never see one in my lifetime. Then, low and behold I moved to Massachusetts and am here for this year's invasion! I saw my first one last December at Salisbury Beach and then 2 more on Plum Island a couple of weeks ago. My what a sight! What a gorgeous bird. I was amused at how funny their head's look in profile with those tufts of feathers or hairs over their nostrils. It almost makes them look as if they have an overbite!

On February 27, 2012 at 10:34 AM Anonymous said...
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