Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Snowy owls irrupt!

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.

The family that owns the farm has been exceedingly gracious to visiting birders. Even their signs reminding people to stay out of the fenced fields are very nice, and prefaced with a big WELCOME. At least 700 people have visited thus far, and unfortunately with the crowds come a few people who need such reminders.

A couple of milk cows playfully butt heads. Animals such as this are one reason why it isn't a good idea to mess around with gates, fences, and entering fields. No one wants a renegade Elsie escaping the pasture.

The celebrity owl perches high atop the peak of the largest barn on the property. In a case of strange bedfellows, it shares space with a flock of house sparrows. What the owl thought of the sparrows remains unknown, but they seemed rather excited by the presence of the massive white bird.

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.

The owl nestles in atop a feed silo - a favored resting spot. As I was driving in on the adjacent county road, I spotted the owl probably a third-mile off, sitting on the ground in the field behind the feed silos. I pulled up to the designated parking area beside a long chicken coop, hopped out and began prepping my camera gear. While I was doing that, the big owl silently swooped in and alit on the silo, only 100 feet or so away. And there he sat, for much of the day.

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.

I suppose many would find observing one owl for 7.5 hours tedious, if not downright boring, and I did outlast all of the some 30 people who stopped by that day. I would have stayed even longer, if time permitted. Like many snowy owls, this animal was utterly unconcerned about the presence of people, or any of the other activities associated with the running of a large farm. Thus, it was a great opportunity to watch and learn more of its behavior. Here, the owl strikes an amusing pose while preening. Note the massive size of its feet. Occasionally  he (this is a juvenile, and presumably a male) would briefly doze, eyes hooding and mostly shut, but for the most part it kept an eye on its surroundings.

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."

During my time, the owl only made a few flights, mostly short hops between the silos and barn. But I was ready for him when he did move. While I did a lot of photographic work with a tripod-mounted telephoto, I kept a Canon 7D II and 300mm f/4 lens around my shoulder and ready for action. This is a great combo for in-flight shots, and that's what I used for this one.

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.


Ring Around The Rosie said...

My husband saw a large white owl in a field across the street, this morning in Darke County Ohio.

Jared G said...

Armed with this info, I plan on seeing if I can find our snowy friend at the post office tomorrow... I've never seen an owl in the wild (not for lack of trying!) and to have my first to be a Snowy would be magical!

Jean B said...

I just love the description of voles as “plump little mammalian sausages with legs.”

hike-n-fish said...

one made it to Parkersburg WV!

Barney Morris said...

While surveying on the Leach Express gas pipeline the first week of December, I spooked a snowing owl pair from a roost in an evergreen next to the pipeline Right of Way about 300 meters south of where that ROW crosses Locker Plant Road west of McArthur, OH. I don't know much about Snowies but these appeared to be juveniles.

Cat said...

I don’t suppose there’s a chance the owl will show up at Audubon Park; my retirement is soon so I will be able to go more places in the early morning but for now it’s weekends only.

Mike said...

We stopped by Buck Creek yesterday, Sunday, the 17th and photographed a beautiful young female(?) in a tree near to the old admin. bldg on the south shore of the lake, at about 3:30pm. There were about 8 other birders there observing till an errant standard poodle flushed the owl from the tree. She has been reported back in the area today, Monday.

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