Photos by NB Hunter (January, 2018). © All Rights Reserved.
When our winter wonderland settles in for the long haul, bringing bitter cold, bone-chilling winds and snow-covered fields, I start searching for snow scenes and snowbirds. We’re on the southern edge of the winter range of several species of birds that summer in the Arctic region and they seem to thrive in our harsh winter conditions. “Snowbirds” include Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, Pine Grosbeaks, Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. It’s the buntings that I see most often and have opportunities to photograph. And I can’t have this conversation without including a large predator in the mix: Snowy Owls.
Bright frosty mornings with clear blue skies are my favorite time to search, concentrating on open farm fields and fence rows. Waste grain and weed seeds are magnets for the songbirds. In a year of abundance, Snowy Owls irrupt southward out of Canada and large, windswept fields with available prey are preferred habitat.
On this morning it was 17 below zero (F) when I left the house, about 10 or 12 below when I arrived on site. Too cold for me and my gear – I used the heated truck as a blind and a padded, open window as a camera rest.
The Common Crow is indeed common. On a slow day crows might be my only wildlife sighting in the frozen fields. I can’t resist the black, white and tan color scheme and use an opportunity like this to check camera settings and practice!
Perfect! A large flock of Snow Buntings feeding on waste grain near the road. Snow Buntings are the winter equivalent of robins and red-wings in the spring: a sign of the season.
“And over the snow-covered fields, Snow Buntings come swirling like leaves [some say like big snowflakes!] driven by the north wind. Snowbird season is here.” – from “Snowbird Season: An Irruption of Boreal Songbirds” by Marie Read, In “Living Bird Magazine”, Jan. 15, 2009 (pub. by The Cornell Lab – All About Birds)
The tiny songbirds fed aggressively for several minutes. Then, true to form, they burst into the air in a synchronized, swirling mass, seemingly without cause.
The scene repeated itself over and over until we were photo-bombed by a huge flock of pigeons descending on the exposed waste grain. Startled from my snowbird trance, I realized the morning was getting away from me and my mission was incomplete. A Snowy Owl would be icing on the cake. And it was!
Photos by NB Hunter (Dec. 31, 2017 and Jan. 1, 2018). © All Rights Reserved.
Photo by NB Hunter (January 1, 2018). © All Rights Reserved.
Mild relief from the frigid, overcast winter weather arrived this morning in the form of sun and a clear sky. I decided to search for a Snowy Owl by scanning open, agricultural areas at high elevations. Snow depth is well below normal and the fields not completely covered – ideal conditions for finding a large white raptor. Unfortunately, the temperature was also below normal and I was forced to use my heated truck as a blind (hide). I cheated: functioning in a wind-chilled environment of minus 20 degrees F (-29 C) is a major complication and I wasn’t up to the challenge.
Initially, I found nothing, and grew weary of scanning. After a while, every snow-covered mound of dirt and clump of vegetation in every field can look like a Snowy Owl!
Just as I was about to abandon the search, an owl appeared, and he was hunting the corn stubble!
A small rodent, probably a Meadow Vole, was captured in a weedy patch at the edge of the corn field, near an access gate; distance and obstructions prevented a photograph.
Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.