Sunday, January 22, 2012

Finding a Snowy Owl

A few weeks ago I saw an article online talking about how this was a good year for people in the US to see Snowy Owls, as the owls were moving south in high numbers.  Later that day I heard a similar report on NPR.  Apparently, this was a good summer for lemmings way up north, so many more baby owls were born and raised than in a normal year.  Some of these owls are now moving south to get enough food.  Snowies are being seen from southern New England across the Midwest (Oklahoma and Missouri) all the way out to Oregon.  

The weekend after I heard about the owls, my wife and I were heading up to see her sister in Eastern Pennsylvania.  So I turned to ebird to look to see if there were reports near their place.  ebird is a site run by the Cornell Lab for Ornithology that collects bird sighting data from people and provides for consumption by both the general public and the scientific community.  It is one of the best examples of the growing "citizen science" activities.  Along the same vein as SETI@Home, which gained popularity several years ago for using spare computer time on your home PC to process signals from space and look for signs of extraterrestrial life.  But ebird, and several other recent examples, allow the citizen-scientists to take a more active role.  For ebird, after going for a bird walk, even around the backyard, I just submit my checklist.  That data is added to everyone else's reports.  I can see what I have reported before as well as what others are seeing.  So in this case, I went to the explore data tab and searched for Snowy Owl reports this month.  As I zoomed in on reporting locations I could see the specific spots they were being reported as well as other people's notes. 

Snowy Owl with prey (red spot at feet)
As luck would have it, there were two sightings within easy distance of their house.  One was being seen quite regularly and at a public park while the other was seen just occasionally and at the field of a small airport.  So when we were up there, Sharon and myself, Sharon's sister and husband as well as Sharon's mom, all piled into the car and drove up to the park.  It was a bitterly cold day, especially for us Virginians, with temperatures struggling to stay in the mid-20's. We stopped by the visitor center at the park and the ranger their gave us good directions to find it.  Luckily it was only a quarter mile walk from the car to the owl.  The owl had been hanging around on the side of a rock-covered dam.  When we arrived there were a handful of people there so they quickly pointed the owl out to us.  We set up our scope and got some great views.  I had taken my camera and tried to get some photos.  But between the cold and the distance, I wasn't able to get particularly good ones.  But definitely good enough to document the sighting. 

The owl appeared to be eating a gull.  When we first arrived, the owl was slowing moving across the dam, taking 10-15 foot "hops" every minute or so.  After a few hops, it settled in and we saw it eating.  Through the scope we could see it ripping the flesh off a wing of a large white bird. So I can only assume that it had killed the gull earlier and then stashed it for later as we would have seen it dragging the bird along if the owl had been carrying it.  For the next 20 minutes or so, the owl just sat there eating and never moved.  Finally, the cold got to be too much and our party started making their way back to the car and hot cocoa at home.  

This is just the second time Sharon and I have seen a Snowy Owl and both have been incredible experiences.  They are so big and beautiful.  It would be wonderful to see one active in their native habitat some time.

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