Monday, December 30, 2013

Snowy Owls: The Invasion of the Century!


Even if you're not a birder, you probably know what a Snowy Owl looks like. Harry Potter's owl Hedwig is a Snowy Owl, a huge white owl with bright golden yellow eyes. Snowies are Arctic birds that are at home on the arctic tundra and are not often seen in the lower 48 states, although some are usually seen in our northernmost states during the winter months. This year, however, is different -- it's what we call an "invasion year," when Snowies move further south and are seen in places where they are considered very rare, including Virginia.

Bryan Watts of the Center for Conservation Biology explains this phenomenon very well on the CCB's blog
(http://www.ccbbirds.org/2013/12/23/snowy-owls-enjoy-virginia-beaches). He writes:

"The winter of 2013 will be remembered as a historic irruption year for snowy owls throughout northeastern North America. Birds are being reported in numbers not seen in a century or more. Such irruption events are triggered by productivity booms on arctic breeding grounds. Snowies are opportunistic breeders with the capability of producing large broods when food conditions allow. Hatch-year birds have yet to develop the hunting skills required to withstand arctic winters and move to easier hunting grounds within lower latitudes during the fall months. During irruption years the large numbers of young move south out of the arctic like a wave. In boom years like 2013 this wave can be like a tsunami."

Virginia birders have been on an adrenalin rush, locating and photographing Snowy Owls. There have been maybe a dozen sitings so far this winter, both along the coast and inland. Not only are Snowies rare, but they are also large, stately, gorgeous, and very impressive, making them one of the "most wanted" birds on a birder's wish list.

The Snowy Owl at the top of this page is one that I photographed at Craney Island in Portsmouth when I went there on a field trip with members of the Virginia Beach Audubon Society, led by Steve and Julie Couri. We did not discover this bird on our own; it had been previously reported and we were hoping it had stayed put long enough for us to get a look. Not only did we get "a look," we got once-in-a-lifetime looks at this magnificent bird. It was a great day!

I want to share photos that other birders have taken of Snowy Owls throughout Virginia and, in the photo below, from Buxton, N.C. near the Hatteras lighthouse. Keith Roberts of Chesapeake took this beautiful photo on December 2nd; this was one of the first Snowies to show up in our region. (I planned to chase it too, but the Bonner Bridge closed the day before I could go).


Victor Laubach of the Augusta Bird Club in Waynesboro photographed two different Snowies, one in Dayton, and one in Bridgewater (photos of both are below). He writes:

"The one in Dayton was found by a local person but the birder/photographer who reported it was Kevin Shank. I read the rare bird alert on my email around 1pm that day and I dropped everything and drove there. That bird was pretty dark and was either and adult female or a 1st-year male because of the dark barring with white bib. It’s difficult to tell for sure. It was perched all day on a wooden post in the back of a Mennonite Church."



"The one in Bridgewater was found by me along with Josh Laubach (my son) and Gabriel Mapel as we were driving over highway 81 on Cecil Wampler Rd. Just before we got over the highway my son shouted out "Snowy Owl, Snowy Owl!!!", whereupon I hit the brakes, backed up and the bird was sitting only 150 feet away on a fence at the edge of a cornfield. It sat there for a few hours and then took flight twice, landing in the cut cornfield both times. This bird appears to me to be a male, either adult or immature. It's hard for me to tell. It's pretty light with very faint barring on breast and more apparent dark spots on back, wings and tail. This is a different bird that I photographed in Dayton on 12/3/2013, which had heavy barring on breast and top of head."


William Leigh also photographed the Bridgewater owl -- in fact, he lives in Bridgewater. He wrote:

"There have been numerous reports of  Snowy Owl here in Rockingham county this Winter. I managed to miss all the previous birds and was getting very eager to see a Snowy here in my own backyard so to speak. Finally I got a call from a friend on the December 27th  that a Snowy was sighted just 3 miles from house! When I arrived the bird was sitting on a post right beside interstate I-81. Several hours later with dusk upon us and the light  fading  fast the bird became more active and at one point flew directly overhead. Over the last several days the bird has become more active right at dusk."

Below are his photos; one of my favorites is the owl sitting on a post right on the freeway. It's just so absurd! The second is a beautiful photo he got later when the owl flew over his head, a very hard shot to "freeze" and get in good focus. He did a great job:




Barbara Houston is well known to Virginia birders as a prolific photographer, and she shares links to many of her photos on the Virginia Birding listserv and on her Fyne Fotography website (http://www.fynefoto.com). She found and photographed her Snowy Owl at Chincoteague -- after three other unsuccessful trips there! Here is her report and her outstanding photo:

"[My favorite photo] has to be this one, the first owl we saw on the day...and the lighthouse in the background! We had previously visited the Chincoteague beach 3 other times with no luck when we arrived around 8am on Thursday morning.  We were greeted right away with a snowy owl sitting near the parking area at the south end of the beach while several other photographers watched.  We parked a hundred yards or so away and walked slowly down the beach until we were positioned to take some pictures.  The bird was gorgeous and all that we had imagined.  It sat and gave us good looks for about twenty minutes before moving down to the off road area of the beach.  I was fortunate to get this shot as it took off with the lighthouse in the background."


The rest of the photos, below, are of the Snowy Owl that was at Craney Island, and all were taken on that Virginia Beach Audubon field trip arranged by the Couri's (thank you again, Steve and Julie!) You'll see different "faces" of the owl in these photos, from comical to sleepy to stately. I've included two photos each from Steve Couri, Julie Couri, Keith Roberts, and myself, so I hope you don't tire of them. But who would ever tire of a Snowy Owl!?




The two photos above were taken by Steve Couri; the two below were taken by his wife Julie.                    



Keith Roberts took the following two photos, and writes: "These were taken on the Craney Island trip with the Virginia Beach Audubon. This Owl was located on the north side of the island. I think we woke it up as it was yawning."



And last, two (okay, three..) more photos of my own. And let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year and "Peace on Earth." This sentiment is usually accompanied by a picture of a white dove, but I think the Snowy Owl is much better, don't you?











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