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.
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.
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?