SNOWY OWLS MAKE ANY YEAR A BIG YEAR
by Lynn Barber
Snowy Owls have fascinated me from the first time I ever saw a picture of one. You would think that growing up in Wisconsin I would have seen one there, or at least heard of one being seen there during those years, but I did not. I also did not see one in Alaska when we lived in Anchorage during our first year of marriage. It wasn’t until February of 1996, during a very cold winter when I was back at my parents’ home in Wisconsin that I saw my first Snowy Owl. It was the day after my mother died. I had gone out for a long drive to try to get away from sadness, and was very pleased to find the owl, sitting on a short corn stalk that protruded above the vast field of snow drifts, not too far from the icy road.
I saw my next Snowy Owl four years later on my one and only trip to Attu, very distant and unapproachable. During my 11 years in Texas, I did get to see one Snowy Owl, near Abilene. It had apparently been sighted by a rancher who was moving some hay bales, which dislodged some rodents hiding under the bales and attracted a Snowy Owl from somewhere. The word spread and most Texas birders, including me, made the trip to see a rare Texan Snowy Owl.
It wasn’t until my ABA big year in 2008, however, that I saw more than one Snowy Owl in the same year, and in fact saw more than one in the same day. The first one that year was in Minnesota, on a pole near an area in Duluth, which I think was in a prison complex, where no parking was allowed. It was getting dark but we were able to see the perched owl as we slowly idled in place (not parking) and then drove off. Not too satisfactory a view, but a certain one. Little did I realize that I would also see quite a few more Snowy Owls that year in Alaska on St. Paul Island (on 2 different days in May) and in Barrow (on each of 3 days in June). The most spectacular day of Snowy Owl viewing that year, however, was in Newfoundland in December, where after I added three gulls (Black-headed, Iceland and Yellow-legged) and a Northern Lapwing for the year, we drove down a road overlooking the sea that was filled with Snowy Owls (at least 7 as I recall).
When I moved to South Dakota, I expected to see more Snowy Owls. The first winter (2010-2011) when I was still living in Texas but periodically commuting to South Dakota, I do not believe there were many (or perhaps any) reports of Snowy Owls there. I certainly did not hear of any or see any. The second winter, however, was THE WINTER for Snowy Owls invading much of the US. Now that I was in the northland, Snowy Owls were drifting far south of me. During that winter I watched a video of an owl sitting on a deck looking over buildings in Dallas, Texas! But they did not all go so far south. They also blanketed much of the central northern US, including South Dakota. At Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge, east of the Missouri River in southern South Dakota, there were reports of over 30 Snowy Owls being seen in a single day. The day that I went down there, we saw six of them. It seemed that if you went out driving and drove for long enough almost anywhere in South Dakota that winter, you had a very good chance of finding them, particularly in the counties along the Missouri River which flows south through the center of the state. I even found one in southwestern South Dakota a couple of miles from my home. It’s not on my yard list yet though.
This winter is beginning to look like another good year for Snowy Owls, at least in South Dakota. There had already been one report just before my recent trip east of the Missouri River. After three days of wandering around trying to get as many views of the river as I could, so I could look for winter gulls and scoters, I was returning home late on Saturday afternoon (the 17th) along a very rural hilly highway when I noticed a rounded lump on top of a silo as I whizzed by. It seemed like it might be an owl. There was no traffic at all, so I backed up to get a better view and it was a Snowy Owl surveying the scene below. I slowly backed closer to the silo, snapping pictures wildly out my car window. The owl seemed only vaguely interested in me and my car, just sitting and moving its head around every now and then. I made little sounds, trying to imitate a mouse squeaks and the owl’s head snapped to attention looking down at me. After a short time, the owl decided I wasn’t really that interesting and looked off in another direction. Figuring that my mouse sounds weren’t that realistic, it occurred to me to find mouse sounds on the Internet on my iPad, which I did. This resulted in the same temporary interest by the owl. I sat there, snapping periodic pictures from my car as the sun began to disappear from view. All of a sudden the owl flew north along the road I had been travelling, so I started the car and began to follow, but not for long. The owl decided instead to turn around and return to the top of the silo for another 10 minutes. Then, the owl headed south and landed down at my level on a nearby roadside post, but a passing car spooked it off across the fields, where it landed on a distant fence post. As I headed home, I was grateful for one more beautiful memory of a Snowy Owl.
Of course, the sad reality is that sightings of Snowy Owls in the United States often mean that conditions up in their Canadian homeland have not been meeting their needs. Lack of food or the presence of nasty winter weather or both have caused the owls to look for a better world. Many of these wanderers do not survive their southern journeys, analogous to the plight of tired spring warblers or hummingbirds coming north across the Gulf of Mexico. In both situations, seeing the birds can bring a simultaneous joy in the sighting and a foreboding of what the bird’s future will be. But the joy was clearly there for me this time. No matter what else happens in a day, the day is a good day when you see an owl, especially a Snowy Owl!