This winter is shaping up to be another decent-sized irruption of snowy owls in the Great Lakes region, and points east. We've had a few dozen reports here in Ohio - mostly along Lake Erie but a smattering well inland. Not all of which have made the birding networks. For instance, I heard about one that was seen at the main post office in Columbus. One wonders how many owls pass through undetected, or set up turf in remote agricultural country and never come to light.
Some owls do become celebrities, and this post is about one of those owls. On Thanksgiving day, a gorgeous snowy owl appeared at a farm in Holmes County, and has been there ever since. I finally made the pilgrimage last Monday, and photos from that excursion follow.
I arrived at the site not long after sunup, and my original intent was to spend 3-4 hours. That ultimately stretched to 7.5 hours. Once again, I was drawn in by the allure of these fascinating Arctic predators, and this was an outstanding opportunity to observe one at fairly close range, and watch its behavior.
Snowy owls are largely nocturnal, like our other owls, and spend lengthy periods sitting in one spot during the day. They will hunt diurnally if an opportunity arises, though, and at one point it spotted a meadow vole at an incredible distance. When one of these owls spots prey, you'll know. It'll extend its neck and stand nearly upright, eyes focused like laser beams on some distant object. It then launches itself, and speeds directly towards the victim with impressive rapidity. As it nears the hapless rodent, the huge snowshoe-like feet and rapier talons are thrust forward and the owl will either snatch it up without stopping, or pounce and land on the prey.
As far as the people fawning over him, the owl paid us nearly no mind. After the first wave of visitors brought a few incautious interlopers invading spaces they shouldn't have, the landowner wisely established viewing areas, and that's where everyone remained. Nonetheless, we would have been quite obvious to him, but the owl didn't care. There are probably a few reasons for its lack of interest in us. One, it hails from northern Arctic regions that are largely beyond the occupied zone of Homo sapiens. It doesn't know what we are, especially a youngster such as this, that was born only last summer. Also, predators such as this do not waste much time on idle pursuits or focus attention on things that are of no use to them. And we are of no use to it. People, at least in this situation, do not represent potential food items, nor threats, thus we are not worthy of notice. We by and large do not exist to the owl.
The utterly blasé attitude towards people observers was striking. The bird's magnificent indifference to the lowly bipeds was grand to watch. At one point, someone made a comment to the effect of "why won't it look at us?". About the only reply I could offer is "because we are less than nothing to it."
All of us who have visited owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Wengerd, the property owner. He and his family have been exceedingly gracious in not only tolerating, but welcoming, an invasion of some 700 owl-enthusiasts thus far. I got the chance to talk with him for a while, and he seems thrilled not only with the owl and its presence, but that so many people are taking delight in seeing the rare Arctic visitor.
I would also note that the owl has found a wonderful landlord, and that's why it is staying around. This is an Amish farm, and as such the land management practices are far more eco-friendly than most farming operations are these days. The meadows and fallow fields contain a nice diversity of various plants - they aren't plowed to bare soil or corn stubble as so many farms are right now. Thus, the fields are great habitat for meadow voles, those plump little mammalian sausages with legs, and the fields on the Wengerd farm produce a nice supply of these rodents. The 50-gram voles approximate the lemmings that are a staple of the snowy owl in its Arctic haunts, and when they come down to this latitude, voles become an important dietary component in some areas.