A Rare Northern Beauty

Since moving to New York State and the snow belt more than 25 years ago, I’ve wanted to to see a Snowy Owl in the wild. Every few years I would hear of a sighting, but rarely within a reasonable driving distance. I kept my ear to the ground, but didn’t pursue the matter aggressively.

Everything changed this December. As I searched for something special for Post #101 and a cheery greeting for family and friends for the holiday season, a local newspaper reported “Snowy Owls seen at  Syracuse Hancock International Airport …”.Subsequently, reports from across the Northeast and even south into the mid-Atlantic states made me realize that I could no longer afford to be ambivalent. I just had to locate, observe and photograph snowy owls. We were in the midst of a major population irruption and this might be the best opportunity that I would ever have. The words of Pamela Wood, in an article in the Baltimore Sun, summed up the situation : “Appearance of snowy owls has birdwatchers flying high.”… “Maryland is experiencing what may be a once-in-a-lifetime explosion of snowy owls …..”.

My luck changed for the better in mid-December. A local birder announced snowy owl sightings at a wind farm about 10 miles from home. I soon found myself driving secondary roads across open, wind swept hilltops in farm country. The weather was bitterly cold and snowy, with wind and squalls as an exclamation point. My first two trips were uneventful and I started to lose faith. I had never seen a Snowy Owl and didn’t know exactly what to look for or where to look. I was searching for a snowball in a snowstorm, while also trying to avoid putting my truck upside down in a ditch.

In the absence of owls, I tried to capture the landscape and the mood of the moment.

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Prime Snowy owl habitat in central new York: exposed, open farm land

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My least successful day of owl hunting: too blustery to get a good look at a cow, let alone a white owl!

Finally, on my third visit, I found two, possibly three, owls, and the centerpiece for a special holiday post was within my grasp!

Snowy Owls are birds of open country. Their summer breeding range is the treeless tundra of the Arctic region where they hunt from, or low to, the ground. In more southerly locations, they perch on the ground, posts, poles, hay bales, rarely in trees. Of my five sightings, four were birds perched on the tops of telephone poles, one on the ground in a cut corn field.

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Adult males are snowy white, while females and immature birds are peppered with varying amounts of dark markings. The compact ball of feathers atop a pole can be very deceiving. Huge wings seem to appear out of nowhere. No owl in North America, not even the Great Horned or Great Gray, is as heavy as the Snowy Owl. Dense plumage for added insulation adds a little weight, but I believe Bergmann’s rule provides a better explanation. This principle states that, other things being equal, animals in colder regions tend to be larger than animals in warmer regions. The larger animals radiate less body heat per unit of mass, which increases their chances for survival in extremely cold climates.

I have never seen a large bird leave a perch with the speed and agility of a Snowy Owl, nor have I ever seen a bird vaporize into thin air!  Poof! Gone, down and away, like a wisp of smoke in a gust of wind.

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In the far north, Lemmings are a dietary staple. Related to the common Meadow Vole found in this area, Lemmings are 4-5-inch rodents that undergo dramatic, boom and bust population cycles every few years. These cycles are a driving force behind the southerly movement of Snowy Owls into the U.S. (irruptions), resulting in food shortages during population crashes or too many owls when populations are booming.

Like most predators, Snowy Owls are also opportunistic. Many species of birds and mammals are fair game, as are fish that have washed ashore in coastal areas.

To set the scene for the remaining photos, imagine a small pile of spilled grain in a harvested cornfield. A flock of a hundred or so Snow Buntings and a flock of about 15 pigeons occasionally swoop in and feed on the grain. And, sitting about 10 feet away, is a Snowy Owl.

Here, the owl is watching intently as the flock of Snow Buntings feeds and swarms around the spilled grain. Unlike most owls, the Snowy Owl is diurnal. They hunt by day, an adaptation for survival in an Arctic environment where the sun never sets.

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Snowy Owl and a flock of Snow Buntings

In the course of a photo shoot, there’s always a missed opportunity. When the large flock of pigeons came in to feed, I simply watched, with the owl barely visible, several feet behind them. Suddenly, the pigeons exploded into the air, scattering in all directions, with a charging owl in the center of it all. When the snow settled, I had an owl in my viewfinder, alone and empty handed. I don’t know who was more disappointed over her failure to kill and eat a pigeon.

This event was a remarkable lesson in cryptic coloration. I had absolutely no idea that a relatively large bird of prey could sit, fully exposed in an open field, and fool, not just one, but an entire flock, of birds. I’m convinced that the pigeons had no idea that the owl was sitting a few feet away!

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She changed her perch position several times, but never by more than a few feet. Once, she simply walked three or four feet and sat down again. Another time she moved farther from the spilled grain and to the back side of a slight knoll, so only her head and neck were visible.

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Happy Holidays

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

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31 thoughts on “A Rare Northern Beauty

      • Sweeet! On the subject of owl condition: I decided not to mention this in my post write-up, but I had read a lot about the questionable condition of migrating owls and was concerned about unnecessary disturbance – of owl and/or prey – while photographing. I believe I could have stayed on site for an hour longer than I did, possibly getting that unique, once-in-a-lifetime shot, but I chose to count my blessings and leave. The last photo in my post, which is the one that will adorn my den, was how I left her. Thanks again for visiting and sharing your thoughts…and for your input too – you were one of the contacts that helped get me going on this project!

  1. Utterly fantastic! What a thrill it must have been to finally spot this bird. Not only to see it, but to get such wonderful images. I’ll bet you forgot about the cold!
    Happy Holidays!

    • Thanks Martha. Best wishes to you and the girls too. Yes, I’ll try and find something jaw-dropping to photograph over the holidays, but, at the moment, Mother Nature is doing everything she can to discourage that!!

  2. Wow Nick, how fantastic!! I’m insanely jealous of your owls (but not of your weather!!) Your shots are wonderful but the first is my favorite. His eyes are amazing, aren’t they?! Well worth your efforts, congrats!

  3. Post # 101 sure hits the mark Nick!! Such a stunning looking creature and it’s fascinating that they’re venturing so far south. Not the most hospitable weather for bird photography either … well done, for spotting this beauty.

  4. Wow, what stunning photos! And what a wonderful experience, to watch one like this. I would love to see a Snowy Owl myself – they occasionally get them up in the Western Isles, but it’s a long way away!

  5. Love the photos and a well written background story as well. I didn’t know that was why they were visible during the day. Planning on looking for them this year as well although I know I won’t get any decent photos.

    • Thanks Charly. Much appreciated. That was one of my more memorable experiences with a camera, one I couldn’t wait to share. I’m still reading on the subject and searching for a few more good photos. From what I’ve learned, you very well might see one in your area – I hope you do. Good luck!!!

      • Thanks, I have friends that have managed for find a couple already but they’re experienced birders. Hoping I’ll at least get location info from them. I have great binoculars but lousy birding photo skills. Now for a bit of a break in the weather 🙂

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