The Holy Grail of the Bird World – a Snowy Owl Story

Imagine a bird rarely seen out of the Arctic. A big, beautiful, white bird with golden eyes. It’s a photogenic bird for sure, providing the perfect contrast against the backdrop of all landscapes. Even in the snow, those eyes stick out. They tell a story. But this is a story we don’t fully understand. There is little research on these birds because of their extremely distant homes.  The homes where they were born and where they will parent their young. There is uncertainty on why, where and when these birds choose to travel. How long will they stay? Are they young? Male? Female? What do they eat or what don’t they eat? Is their propensity for visiting beaches and airports really because those places look like the tundra? Why are they flying south from the Arctic lately when this didn’t previously happen? Is it possible this did happen in our very distant past? Will this be every year now?  Does human presence bother snowy owls or are they as intrigued by us as we are of them? All of these mostly unanswered questions give rise to the magical and mysterious aura of this bird. To me, the snowy is the holy grail of the bird world.

Since the first, big (recorded and in modern times) snowy owl irruption in the winter of 2013/14, I’ve tried to see as many snowy owls as I can within a ‘reasonable’ distance. I haven’t decided yet what ‘reasonable’ means –  it’s also subject to daily change. I haven’t traveled to New Jersey or New York from Maryland for snowy owls. Yet. But very close and there was that family vacation in Montreal with the hope of um, uh, well, harfang des neiges.  I’m fairly sure my family kind of knew that. As it happened, there were only two snowy owls in Montreal (that I knew of) while we visited – one in captivity (that I did see) and one on private property, at the home of, wait for it – Celine Dion (that I didn’t see).  If I had Celine’s phone number, I more than likely would have called her. And that, more than likely, would have been a weird conversation.

I’ve seen seven snowy owls in the wild.  Am I the only one that goes, uh, a little out of my way, to see snowy owls?  Not by a long shot. I’ve met so many wonderful, really cool, not-at-all-crazy people, just like me, who hop in the car at the first mention of the possibility of a snowy owl sighting. Most recently, I went to Delaware to see a snowy owl that was seen consistently in the same spot for multiple days. This was a sure thing. As I’m driving down the long road to the beach, I noticed several cars driving in the opposite direction – they were leaving. No one leaves if a snowy is present. Certainly not at 10 am. It was a bad sign. But the thing with birds is they have wings and can leave on a whim, without any notice to humans. This one apparently did. I’ve also seen a few of these birds that were so far off you wouldn’t even know it was bird with just the naked eye. Why do we do this? I can only speak for me and it might be a surprising answer.

My Snowy Owl Story 

In April of 2012, because of a diagnosis of breast cancer and a family history with the disease, I had a bilateral mastectomy. I was on the operating table for over 12 hours, had a lot of complications and was left in pain. Lots of pain. Permanent nerve damage. I’m not going to bore you with the details – if you’re interested, I’ve written a lot about it.  While I was at home recovering, I started seeing and hearing things – stay with me here. Yes, yes, of course, I was on a lot of drugs – prescription drugs. I did, at first, think that the prescription pain medicine was making me hallucinate because why else would there be enormous things flying around my backyard. Every day, I’d see this. Every day, I just went back to sleep thinking the drug-induced fog would go away. And then one day, I started hearing things. It was a weird, high pitched sound coming from my front yard. Great – I’m falling apart physically and now mentally too. For the first time since surgery, I picked up my camera and went outside. And what I discovered were two of the cutest and I mean ridiculously cute, baby barred owls perched on a tree in my driveway – not the least bit scared of humans.  The fact that these juvenile barred owls didn’t have a problem perching close to humans seemed to bother mom and dad barred owl quite a bit and that’s who I was seeing fly around the backyard. This lasted until the derecho – I didn’t see those juveniles again. As for the adults, they’ve been a constant since 2012. They’ve had at least one other brood. And I fell in love with birds of prey.  As time went by, I noticed something happening – the pain that I continue to have from nerve damage, which no medication has helped,  being out in nature actually does do something.  I can’t walk far or fast, but when I can focus on something through my lens, I don’t focus on me or my chest pain. Yes, the pain is still there, but if there’s an owl or an eagle or maybe a polar bear, that is so much  cooler, so much more majestic and so much better to focus on. That’s my story – owls appeared at exactly the right moment in my life. Snowy owls came along shortly thereafter.  It was love at first sight.

Comradery

What happens when we, humans,  do gather to see these birds? Comradery happens. We’re often standing out in the cold, for long periods of time and we’re all there for the same reason – a big, beautiful, mysterious bird. We talk, we share stories, we learn about the places we’re visiting, other birds in the area and about one another. I met an incredibly cool woman recently – in her full-time life, she’s a flight paramedic. Her office is a helicopter. We both love dogs – we talked about those too. There was another woman who just got back from Churchill, Canada – photographing polar bears. That’s my dream trip. Her photos are amazing. Then there was the guy in Delaware who had me laughing about the one that got away, the one we didn’t see and by the way, we both traveled from Annapolis. As we were walking back to our cars, he summed up the predicament we were in – as soon as we leave, he said, the snowy owl would appear, likely in a top hat, cane, and with a penguin next to him.  Yep, this is birder and photographer humor. You never want to miss that perfect shot. Thus far (24 hours later), the snowy owl hasn’t returned to that spot. I do maintain though, a day spent looking for a snowy owl that isn’t seen, is still a good day. I met some other wonderful people during the 2013/14 irruption – a few I’m truly glad to have as friends.

Protocol

As for the protocol, we do need to give snowy owls their distance. They’ve traveled a long way and they need to eat and drink – we shouldn’t force them into flight or scare away that which they’re hunting for. With this current irruption and the last one, quite a few snowy owls have been treated for dehydration. Forcing snowy owls to exert more energy by getting too close is just bad all around. As for respecting the environment, dunes shouldn’t get trampled and private property needs to remain private, unless and only if the property owner has given permission for people to visit.  As for keeping snowy owl locations secret, I’m not a fan. By doing that, I tend to think you’re going to stop good people from seeing an  incredible bird, who wouldn’t have the chance otherwise. This is huge teaching moment for not just us, but kids, teachers, future bird enthusiasts and future conservationists.

Your Snowy Story

Now that you’ve heard my story, I really would like to know yours. Are you in love with snowy owls? Why? How far have you traveled to see one?

 

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8 Replies to “The Holy Grail of the Bird World – a Snowy Owl Story”

  1. Love your story. Sad for the reason you found birds, but glad you did. I, too, love owls, large birds of prey, mainly because I can see them. In 1994, I lost a good part of my eyesight due to MS and it has never returned. It is different in each eye, so while legally I am blind, I can see to get around, not drive but not fall over things- much. I can spot an Eagle, or Owl, maybe because of their size and while I have swiss cheese vision and little birds disappear into those holes, the larger birds do not. Hence I have a great appreciation for them. I walked into my back yard with my arms full of stuff 3-4 weeks ago, none of which was a camera, and saw a Snowy Owl sitting on the top of a tree, overlooking fields and highways. I just stood there, staring at this marvelous bird, lit by the morning sun, until it took flight, perhaps to find a better perch, prey or just travel on. I am not far from either Bay but it flew toward the Delaware Bay. I haven’t seen it again, and did not get to Fowler’s Beach to see that one, but I’ve had the chance to see others- Bower’s Beach last year, 4-5 of them along DE Bay near Augustine Beach in 2013/14, Smyrna in a field in 2010, and in 2004, so they do come by. And it is so true. Meeting people who love to find birds is a wonderful thing. I’ve made good friends that way and enjoy the time I have with my son, who in his kindness, takes me along, though I surely slow him down. I hope you see more and I doubt we’ve seen the last of the Snowy’s, unless they’ve gone north in advance of the coming storm, though I highly doubt it. My guess is, they’ll be back, having perhaps hunted out one area, but they’ll show up in the next, or so I hope.

  2. Karen,

    Thank you and likewise, I’m sorry about the MS and your eyesight. I’m really glad you have the ability to see these larger birds. And how incredible that a snowy stopped by to visit you. Hope to meet you in person one day with a snowy nearby!

  3. Like you and many others I have enjoyed the odyssey that is the adventure of seeing a snowy owl. I’ve traveled to places, lurked for hours in places I normally wouldn’t venture in to alone. I’ve met people from New Jersey who were in the area and thought that would see if they could catch another shot of another owl. This was not the one that got away for me; I just retired after 34 years of working – i have a husband that is exceedingly patient with my hobby of photography and what has become my obsession with “the owl”. My mostly saint of a husband, is blind, diabetic, a transplant patient who last year lost a leg to infection. Life for us is complicated, some times difficult and frequently ridiculously entertaining. We’ve been known to yell and laugh and cry, sometimes at our predicament. He always goes along. On the day of the first reported sighting I beat feet to the beach. I knew my way well because I had just been there 2 days before photographing snow buntings. I had just thrown the dinner in the oven when I decided I wouldn’t be satisfied with myself if I didn’t try to see it. (I was just coming off of 2 hours of hanging out at Port Mahon the afternoon before to see if it would appear there. If you know the area, you know that that experience was a cross between interesting and flat out dicey. ) I made the trek; was more than lucky enough to see and photograph the owl and accidentally caught a magical moment when the short-eared owl challenged the snowy. It was not the best picture of the short eared – but the snowy was engaged – and quite frankly it was all about the snowy for me. I called my husband who only wanted to know if I got it…….I suspect he knew that if I hadn’t we were going to be of on a journey to NJ to see if we had more success there. He was even more supportive when I returned home and the dinner that I had popped in was, shall we say, slightly less than edible because a few minutes with that beautiful bird was really an hour and a half.

    I returned two days later and was able to witness it again – and this time -I met many others as exuberant as I was to breath in the beauty. I didn’t burn anything but I’m pretty sure I’ll land with a cold after this one because you just don’t seem to feel the cold or the wind or anything when you’re so focused on something so awesome.

    I didn’t go back – I guess I really was the lucky one, because it hasn’t been seen since then. Will I pursue the chance to see others this winter…..I’m pretty sure I once seen always hooked.

    1. Deb – that photo of yours is simply amazing. A moment to be treasured for sure. Hopefully I’ll meet you out and about looking for the next snowy! As I write this, I’m trying to decide whether to go to DC to see the owl that was spotted last night on the Natural History Museum.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story, Donna. Yours, and several others who have replied, help me realize how fortunate I am. In many ways. I have not had to endure physical ailments that limit me in any way. And I had the good sense to leave the good-paying world of computers to become a wildlife biologist 25 years ago. Birds, in general, have a way of touching people. So many times, I’ve been talking to people at a gathering and when I tell them I work in bird conservation it seems the closet door opens for them. Their eyes get big, they start talking excitedly, and they are FINALLY free to talk about this thing they love but have been afraid to reveal to anyone (remember the Beverly Hillbillies, and perhaps the “Jane Hathaway syndrome”?!). But owls capture a much larger audience that just birders, backyard bird feeders, and other bird enthusiasts. Just look at the many items in all kinds of stores that feature owls. And you are correct – the Snowy Owl truly is the Holy Grail for birds! I have seen more than 700 bird species in the U.S., but have only ever seen six Snowy Owls. And three of those were last week on Poplar Island. Working in bird conservation has allowed me the privilege of working with passionate folks like Dave Brinker and Scott Weidensaul who created Project Owlnet and Project SNOWstorm. Project SNOWstorm (https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/) aims to answer the questions you posed about why and when Snowy Owl irruptions occur. But for now, we can look forward to a season of Snowy Owls, and hopefully get close enough to see into those yellow eyes. If the owls only knew how they impact our species! I thank you and your readers for sharing your stories. Perhaps we’ll all end up looking in awe at the same bird this winter.

    1. Chris – yes, absolutely I hope to see you out and about this winter looking for these incredible birds. I’m glad you were able to see the Poplar Island owls. And I’m hoping to feature Dave and Scott on the 1430 Connection in the near future.

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