November 23, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
56°F
test

Pretty but Deadly

Close up of Snowy Owl in Bruch behid Jackalope“Are you here for the Snowy?” came the startling, but pleasant feminine voice from behind me as I sat freezing New Year’s Day at the old Hotwaters in Lorain. “No,” I responded after recovering my surprise. “I am photographing duck hunters on the break wall.”

“Oh,” she said and disappeared.

This was my first notice that there was a Snowy Owl in residence nearby. And I soon became aware that birdwatchers from as far away as Columbus, and Akron were coming to see what few people are ever privileged to see- A real Snowy Owl. This, of course, is the magic companion and messenger owl of Harry Potter fame. In the movie Hedwig the Owl is a snow white mature male. Were it a female or immature male it would have the dark stripes like those of the bird in these photos.

Within minutes a man and woman team arrived in a SUV with tripods and serious telephoto lenses, far better than my own, to reach out for consistent bird photographs. After setting up and taking a few photos, they disappeared. They reappeared 45 minutes later with mission accomplished and kindly gave me (literally) step by step instructions on photographing the bird without disturbing it. So, I followed their directions minutely, stepping in their tracks in the fresh snow- and returned with the above photo and left the bird sitting just where I found him.

There is much talk in the media that this is the largest Snowy owl invasion on record in the state’s history, or at least since the 1940’s.  Ohio is not alone, the great increase in sightings stretches from the East Coast across the Midwest. There has even been a sighting on the Island of Bermuda 3,000 or so miles from the bird’s typical habitat. CBS News quotes the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Norman Smith saying, “We have removed 53 from Logan Airport.” In a normal winter this number would be about six.

The reasons seem hard to pinpoint, but a major thought is that a good year for lemmings-the Snowy Owls preferred food in the Arctic -  generated a very successful breeding season and a large surplus of young owls which have been pushed South looking for Winter food and habitat.

Don't-Try-This-at-Home-IIActually, Snowy Owl sightings are not so unusual for water fowlers who hunt the break walls in Lorain.  Native Lorainite Terry Heiman has hunted Lorain Harbor for 50 years and told me that “As duck hunters we see Snowy Owls most every year. There were two or three in the harbor [this year], they are beautiful to look at.” Terry says the first of these appeared about the first week of December.

“In the past I have watched them catch fish, watched them pluck the feathers from a duck before eating it, and had them land on the bow of the boat.” He laughs, “But this is the first year I have ever had one land in the blind with us. He was perfectly white, like a big snow ball coming out of nowhere.”  Finally getting the idea that he was not welcome in the blind, this Snowy took up a perch on the front edge of the blind roof.

Until the Harbor iced over January 1-2, living was doubtless easy for the Snowy in my photos. In the first photos this bird has a good view of the harbor, with waterfowl and shad in abundance. Since ice-up, this bird has moved a half-mile to the east-behind the Jacklope Restaurant. Since the recent removal of the trees, this confined 58 acre “diked disposal site,” must also look like the owl’s native the treeless tundra.

But finding food is more problematic here; not only the harbor, but the Lake is frozen for probably several miles in all directions. A walk most of the way around this site on a fresh tracking snow last Friday morning revealed the tracks of half a dozen small birds, two mice, one wandering house cat and  one rabbit. There was a flock of about 100 geese, but the Snowy did not seem interested in them.

Authorities state that it takes half dozen to a dozen mice a day to feed a typical four to 6 and half pound Snowy Owl. So the mice and the small birds on this 58 acres are going to get a good work out, ditto the rabbit. The house cat would also be well advised to find some other place to wander.

15-inch-Snowy-Owl-from-distSuch a confined site is also an excellent place to catch sight of this rare owl. The bird is a sit and watch hunter, not generally a patroller, but it does move every 45 minutes to 2 hours, so one of the people who have come to view this visitor will have spotted her by the time you arrive. Try to stay a nice comfortable distance from the Snowy, watching us should not be as important to the bird as watching for food.