Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Snowy Owl “Invasion” of 2013

It seems the winter of 2013-2014 is starting with a bang-sub zero temps and a solid blanket of snow are leading us out the door with skis and tip ups in hand and fatbikes rolling on packed trails. In my case, I've headed out the door armed with a binoculars and long telephoto lens bayonetted onto my camera. Reports on and in the news are reporting an invasion of Snowy owls across the state.

Although it's not entirely understood why we in Wisconsin (and other states) are treated to this arctic visitor, theories abound. Bust and boom populations of their preferred food, Lemmings, may drive the majestic birds south, in search of better hunting. Successful breeding may also lead to abundant adolescent birds being pushed south for new territory. No matter the reason, every few years, when the birds arrive, we have a wonderful opportunity to experience them. To non-birders, the regal white bird may be familiar as Harry Potters' pet owl Hedwig. And indeed, no other owl is quite as striking as the Snowy. Not entirely white, the bird has perfect camouflage for our Wisconsin winters. The often more observed juveniles, tend to have greater black or dark grey barring across the chest and head, while mature adult males are “cleaner” in coloration.

I can remember maybe seeing just one Snowy owl in the past, on a telephone pole near my parents home in Wausau. I do enjoy birding and photographing birds, so when the “snowy alarm” went off on facebook a few days ago nearby, I just had to make an attempt to see one again. Our local game warden, Adam Hanna, had observed a snowy along a county hi-way north of Neillsville and recorded a fuzzy video of it from his truck. The following morning a good friend asked if I'd like to go in pursuit, cameras in hand, for the birds generally will stay on one area if food is abundant.

The location was a bit of a drive fro us, so we scanned every tree, every power pole and fence post on the odd chance another owl was in the area-a real possibility. As we slowly made our way within a few miles of Adam's sighting, I happened to glance out the side window and amazingly,  a Snowy was flying right at us! Without thinking, my thumb hit the power button on the camera in my lap, I swung the lens up and started firing through the glass window and the bird closed in. It gently flew over the car and lit in a corn stubble field a hundred yards away. From our vantage point, we could just make out the grey and white blob resting on the snow. Both of us kept shooting, but with a paultry 300mm lens, chances of having a good image were marginal at best. The owl seemed to be in no hurry and after observing “him” for sometime, we decided to continue our search in case this was a different owl than was seen the previous day 3 or 4 miles away.

Nothing else turned up and we returned to the corn field where besides glancing our direction from time to time, the bird seemed content where he was. We hoped to get closer shots, but also didn't want to disturb him in anyway so for this day, we would be happy with the extremely lucky images captured on my camera. We did return the following day, but no luck-there are a lot of woodlots between these one mile county “blocks” so he could have been about anywhere or moved on to better habitat. If that's the case, perhaps someone else will have this fortunate opportunity to observe one of natures rare treats-if so, take every advantage of this invasion! More sightings here: ebird

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