Finding An Elusive Snowy Owl

By: jkissnhug

Feb 18 2013

Category: Uncategorized

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Aperture:f/20
Focal Length:400mm
ISO:1250
Shutter:1/1000 sec
Camera:Canon EOS 5D Mark II

What may look like a clump in a field to the non-birder, is actually a Snowy Owl sitting among the overturned soil of a corn field.

If you want to become a good birder, you have to train yourself to look for things that don’t fit a pattern, and watch for small details that seem out of the ordinary. Birders possess a tenacity to keep looking until the point of exhaustion. Tenacity, patience, attention to detail, and a tolerance of sometimes doing nothing but waiting, are traits of a successful birder.

Such was the case on Saturday when my friends and I went in search of a Snowy Owl in the Thumb region of Michigan. As dedicated birders, we signed up with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology web-site eBird, to receive e-mail alerts of rare birds found in Michigan. We had read previous reports of a Snowy Owl in the Bay City region of Michigan. We were up in the Thumb area on an Oakland Audubon Society birding field trip and decided to take a short detour to search for a “life bird” Snowy Owl for my birding companions. A “life bird”, in birding jargon, is a bird someone has never seen before in their life. They are a big deal to birders. We researched (through eBird) the vicinity of the two farm country cross roads where the owl was known to inhabit. When we arrived at the general area, I knew it was going to be a daunting task. The area was totally flat with a dusting of snow on the overturned clumps of yesteryear’s farm crop. To find the Snowy Owl, if it wasn’t in plain view sitting atop a utility pole, was going to test our vision and our attention to details. Knowing a little about your target bird’s habits and preferences will definitely help you in your search. The Snowy Owl has a habit of either perching from a high location to survey its hunting ground or you may find it sitting on the ground to roost the day away. A few false sightings of a Snowy Owl has turned out to be a white plastic grocery bag clinging to the ground or swaying in a tree. You have to look twice and three times to rule out a “grocery bag” Snowy Owl.

As we drove the vast winter landscape of plowed over farmland dotted with towering wind turbines, we knew this was going to be a challenge to find a Snowy Owl hiding in this environment. I told my friends, as we surveyed the fields each looking in different directions, to watch for the owl on the utility poles and on the ground. We went one mile without any possible sightings. We were slightly discouraged but pressed on. We passed the next intersection in our target area, and scoured the landscape for the slightest hint of anything out of the ordinary in this uniformly patterned landscape. Suddenly, my friend Joanne said, I think I see it! I think I found the owl! She quickly stopped and put the truck in park. We grabbed our binoculars in a quick motion that must have looked like a synchronized ballet, and zeroed in on the spot where Joanne first saw something out of the ordinary. After a quick scan of the field, we noticed the lone white clump that stood out in this vast corn field. I looked in my binoculars, and I too, said, we have a Snowy Owl! My goodness, we found the Snowy Owl in this huge open space of barren winter farmland, where it could hide, just out of our sight. Sometimes you just get lucky and the bird is right there in front of you, you just have to look hard and pay attention to the details.

As we gave each other a birders hug, we got to work setting up the spotting scope and we each took a turn to look at the Snowy Owl through the magnified spotting scope lens. We watched as the owl turned its head from side to side and then occasionally stopping and looking straight at us. We kept looking and reveling in our excitement of finding this elusive winter visitor of the northern regions. It is very rewarding to drive two hours and actually find the bird you were seeking. To say it was satisfying to find the bird is an understatement!

We snapped a few documentation photos of the Snowy Owl, and this landscape shot, to portray what we were facing as we looked for this white owl camouflaged in a winter landscape. Before we departed, we called our fellow Oakland Audubon Society birders who were in the area and told them of our sighting and directed them to the location so they too, could enjoy seeing a Snowy Owl.

We wrapped up the day at Dow Ponds in Midland, Michigan, taking in the sights of Bald Eagles flying overhead and Common Mergansers diving in the frigid water of the ponds. We headed home at sunset and took to the highway for our ride back home. As we crested the top of the Zilwaukee Bridge spanning the Saginaw River, an adult Bald Eagle flew over our vehicle as a beautiful closure to a spectacular day spent birding in mid-Michigan.

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