Wednesday, January 22, 2020

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An intimate portrait of a male Snowy Owl taken during a past winter’s outing. This week’s Snowy was nowhere near as close, but it shared a memorable hunting episode.
It was initially difficult to see the Steele owl on its snowy perch from a nearby hillside, but it stood out against the blue sky as Paul drove to a lower vantage point.
Although our editor has taken many Snowy Owl photos at close quarters, it’s sometimes nice to get a broader perspective of an Arctic owl’s snowy winter perch.

Blizzard birding is not my favorite, but Saturday, as the wind roared and blew several inches of snow across the landscape, I enjoyed periodic visits by my usual feeder birds as I wrote and edited this week’s issue. As the sundogs flared on each side of the setting sun, a Brown Creeper slipped into view at the snow-blasted tree next to my feeding station – a day early and a half-hour later than expected (I’ve had a creeper visit each of the past two Sundays at 4:40 and 4:30 respectively. But the highlight of the week was an exciting expedition into the whiteness of an Arctic bird’s winter realm.

Snowy Whiteout

After driving through an unexpected storm that caused occasional whiteout conditions from ground drifting winds for about 30 miles, blue sky showed through just southeast of Steele, and the ensuing sunshine looked pretty good by the time I reached my recent Snowy Owl hotspot, despite being a cool –6 degrees not counting the considerable wind chill. Now that’s adventure birding for you! Even with the improved search conditions, I wasn’t able to find the adult female Snowy during an extended survey west then north of the usual area, so I backtracked and headed a couple miles north to check for the Steele male.

I thought with the ground drifting wind, a perch about 4 feet high might be best for a hunting owl, but the post where I found the adult male before was starkly empty. I searched the surrounding area from where I found the all-white male 12 days earlier. I almost turned around there, but thought I would at least drive another half mile to where it would be easier to turn around with all the snow cover. Moments later I spied a small white dot I thought might be an owl perched atop a distinctive long rock pile – Wonderful. I was convinced it was a Snowy, but I kept driving to my u-turn intersection, then returned to view the owl standing atop the rocks illuminated in nice late afternoon light from a couple hundred yards away. I took a couple documentary photos first, then looked through my binoculars to quickly reach a 95 percent probability that this Arctic owl was the same male I found perched a quarter mile away almost two weeks earlier.

I watched the brilliant white male a bit as he searched the area, photographed it more, then was surprised when the Snowy suddenly flared its wings up with a little hop, only to settle back again. Curious I thought, but it made me watch a bit more; and sure enough, he took flight as I photographed his take off and his long wingbeats as he flew directly at me, yellow eyes set straight ahead in my direction. He set his wings to glide quietly downward, then flared them wide as he dipped below a hidden ledge, presumably to strike unseen prey adjacent to some marsh vegetation.

As the owl made its silent approach to prey, I photographed all the way and could see its eyes looking right in my direction, so it was a unique view for me, and a memorable experience. I’m guessing the Arctic hunter was after a vole or another small rodent, but he stood there a bit more than a minute just out of sight. It could have dispatched and swallowed small prey during that time, but it more likely missed its mark considering its behavior thereafter.

When the owl took flight again it returned to land on the same spot atop the snowy rock pile. Even as it stood there, the white owl was magic incarnated. What an exciting find; what a special bird! It’s also very interesting to know the Steele male is sharing the area adjacent to the adult female, possibly interacting with her in some ways. After all, there aren’t many Snowys in Dakota this winter, so it’s likely they have a relationship, or there is quite an abundance of food in that particular location, or both.

I must admit though, the luckiest part of this trip was that after running a couple needed errands and having a nice Mexican dinner in Bismarck, I made it back home without incident after dodging pillow drifts or plowing through them here and there in the dark with the growing volume of blowing snow an ever-growing concern. But the big wind didn’t start until an hour after I essentially hunkered down in my house for the weekend with another blizzard looming.

Hope the weather in your neighborhood is much nicer! Saturday afternoon my friend Marilyn sent me a photo of a Brown Pelican she took with her cellphone while boating near Miami – a nice setting for a blizzard daydream. Enjoy your week, and have some birding fun.

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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