Snowbirds: ‘Tis the Season

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.

Summer Heat

The Central New York weather forecast predicts a high of about 90 today, but extremely high humidity will make it feel more like 95 (F). My outdoor activities tail off noticeably in this type of weather, prompting me to respond with a cheery image captured when the wind-chill temperature was about 100 degrees less than it is now!

Snowy Owl at rest on a cold winter morning; January, 2014

Photo by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Snowy Fields

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.



Crows and Owls

Several years ago, while walking through a mature stand of Norway Spruce trees at dusk, I startled a large bird of prey with a kill. The bird was less than 10 meters in front of me, on a dead limb about 3 meters high. Even though it was nearly dark, I could see that it was a Great Horned Owl and also saw its large, dark-bodied kill plop to the ground as it made a hasty escape. The victim was a crow, and it had been decapitated.

The fact that owls eat crows is at least a partial explanation for the mobbing behavior of crows. Pity the roosting owl (or hawk) that is discovered by a flock of crows. The raucous harassment can be heard for hundreds of meters and is relentless, continuing until the raptor takes flight and is driven away.

On two occasions I’ve had the good fortune to see the interaction between a Snowy Owl and mobbing crows in daylight: last winter (“Mobbed” and again three days ago.





The reaction of crows to a white owl perched on the ground seems to be much less intense than expected, possibly because this is such an unusual and seldom seen raptor. These crows were fairly quiet and, after a feeble attempt to intimidate the Snowy, simply flew away. The owl appeared to be somewhat annoyed, but not alarmed; it never budged.


Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.


Almost Spring!?

I like to document natural events in my photo journal. Two days ago a brief warm spell had melted much of our snow, to the point that bare ground was attracting hungry deer, turkeys and many species of birds.


Snowy Owl on March 11, 2014

Abruptly, a nasty, unwelcome winter storm arrived, bringing frigid temperatures, sub-zero wind chills and 10 inches of snow. Brrrrr. And spring is just a week away!!!!


“Beefers” on March 13, 2014


Farm on March 13, 2014

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Hunting the High Ground, Part 2

The complete story of an immature Snowy Owl hunting on bare ground during a brief winter thaw couldn’t be squeezed into a single post. The subtleties of owl behavior during an  active hunt, particularly those pertaining to mobility, deserve special treatment in a dedicated post.

The owl was hunting a bare patch less than 30 meters across. In addition to the attack on a small mammal described in the previous post, he moved several times during my hour-long visit. Short distances of a meter or two were covered by walking, longer distances by a short, low flight. I likened this behavior to that of a human hunter, birdwatcher or nature photographer who might sit in one place for awhile and, if nothing happens, move a little further down the trail and try again.

These images depict a Snowy Owl walking, presumably to gain a better vantage point from which to hunt. (walking is a common behavior, but I suspect they hope no one is around to take their picture when they’re doing it, preferring instead to be immortalized in flight!)



In this sequence, the owl has flown about 20 meters, from bare ground to the snow-covered fringe, and is skidding to a stop.


Note the fragment of corn stalk in his face, and his reaction!


Snowy is hunting the bare ground again, but this time with the added advantage of natural camouflage.


Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Hunting the High Ground, Part 1

When on their summer range in the treeless arctic tundra, Snowy Owls prefer to nest on high ground. An elevated site will be dryer and free of snow sooner than a lowland site, conditions that favor hunting and nesting success.  A reconnaissance of the local wintering habitat illustrated the importance of high ground on winter range as well.  A warm spell in late February reduced the snow pack considerably, exposing small patches of bare ground  on wind-swept knolls and hilltops. I discovered an immature male hunting one of these bare spots in bright, mid-morning sun, and made the most of the opportunity.

Mr. Snowy was “mousing”, i.e. searching for any of several species of small mammals, including mice, voles and shrews.

Like a “sleeping” cat, this restful pose can be deceptive. The flight of a bird overhead or the faint squeak of a vole under the snow could alter the scene dramatically.


Abruptly, a tall profile and intense stare were triggered by movement and/or sound – I can’t be certain. Guided by his reaction, I got a glimpse of something small and dark, scurrying briefly across the surface of the ground before disappearing in a maze of debris, mud and snow. I guessed it to be a Meadow Vole.


The chase was on! Impressively, the short distance was covered in a few powerful wing beats. Patient hunting on the high ground during a winter thaw fed the young owl.






Hunting in partially thawed mud can be messy, requiring an occasional pit stop to groom feet and talons!.


To be continued ……….!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.