Unless you’ve just emerged from a months-long research stint in an off-the-grid outpost on an island in the South Pacific, you probably know that there is a massive irruption of Snowy Owls underway in Northeastern and Midwestern North America this winter. They first started showing up en masse in the U.S. in November of 2013.
You should know that I am a card-carrying member of the Owl Fanatics Club. For the past few winters I have driven up to owl-renowned Amherst Island in Ontario in search of Snowys, but this winter’s unprecedented irruption means I don’t need to go that far afield to see them. In fact, one showed up early in the season only about ten minutes from my home in Ithaca, New York! So far this winter I have photographed Snowy Owls in five different locations in two states: my own, New York, and neighboring Pennsylvania. Several of those Snowy encounters were thanks to private tips from birders or announcements on local birding listservs, but my most exciting encounters have been purely accidental. Here I trace my own Snowy Owl journey of this incredible winter.
In early December the local birding listserv included a report of a Snowy on private property in Danby, NY, about a 10-minute drive from my house. The owners were granting permission for people to park along their driveway and view the Snowy from their cars; the owl was resting in a nearby tree. Let’s just say I made haste to get over there. The sun was harsh and the bird was not as close to the driveway as I’d hoped, so I wasn’t able to get stellar photos, but it was an extraordinary treat to see my first New York Snowy, and so close to home! Here I’ve caught her rousing her feathers for a moment.
A couple weeks later a friend reported a Snowy Owl near Watkins Glen, NY, on the west side of Seneca Lake. After driving the hour or so from my home and some searching, I found the owl sitting against a hedgerow on the snow, basking in the sun. I sat and waited for her to do something—which can take a long time with birds that are mainly crepuscular/nocturnal in their hunting habits. Finally, with sunset approaching, she lifted up and flew into the field she’d been facing. She spent a few moments hovering in place, high over the field, reminiscent of a hunting Rough-Legged Hawk. She then flew to the top of a tree and I was able to catch some dramatic shots of her facing the setting sun.
Ed. note: All images copyright Melissa Groo. Do not use without permission.
Later in December, while spending the holidays on Lake Ontario in upstate NY, I decided to make a trip to check out the Snowy Owls of Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA. The snow was falling hard and fast and the roads were treacherous. While driving through the outskirts of the small town of Gasport, I noticed a large bird perching on a telephone wire alongside the road. It was no Red-Tailed Hawk, it was a Snowy! I pulled over to photograph it on the wire and then on the telephone pole to which it flew. After a while it moved to the top of a municipal building. I like the white-on-white effect of this setting. Eventually the owl flew and disappeared from view in a ditch in an agricultural field. I took that as a hint and departed.
Presque Isle is a wonderful peninsula projecting into Lake Erie replete with wildlife. There were reports of up to 4 or 5 Snowy Owls reported at a time on Gull Point, the tip of the peninsula. One morning a friend who lives in Erie and I set out and we came upon two Snowys on the beach in the lightly falling snow. It was my first time seeing them in dunes and right at the edge of the water. I was able to capture some nice portraits despite the cloudy weather. Presque Isle is a special place and I hope to spend more time there someday with some wonderful new friends I met.
My favorite Snowy Owl encounter comes from early January, while tromping through the vast, snowy fields behind a friend’s house in Spencer, NY, looking for a purported Short-Eared Owl. I came to a steep rise where I could see nothing ahead but drifting snow and blue sky. As I crested the ridge I saw a fencepost, and on it an owl. But this was no Short-Eared, it was a Snowy. Stunned, I took a few record shots, then very slowly and by degrees, moved a bit closer until I was within 40 feet, making sure it didn’t look stressed or anxious as I approached. I then sat in the snow for half an hour until sundown, watching this beautiful creature survey the surrounding landscape. My fingers felt close to frostbite, but otherwise I was fairly comfortable. Eventually the Snowy took flight, heading towards the setting sun. I sat there, awestruck by this encounter and my good luck. It’s these moments that I live for, quiet moments in the presence of wildlife just doing their thing. I got in my car and photographed it one last time, after the sun had gone down, in flight over the snowy field.
That singular moment could not be topped, so lately I’ve been content to merely read about new sightings, rather than chase every bird. Have I become blasé? Not at all. It’s just that I don’t relish the thought of jockeying for position along a busy road, trying to get a picture of a tiny white lump on a metal post in bad light. To be quite honest, I’ll probably head back up to Amherst to photograph Snowys where I’m used to seeing them, and where I might be the only one gawking at them this year. In fact, when you’re reading this, that’s probably where I’ll be!
I hope you have a chance to experience this year’s exceptional Snowy Owl irruption – but if not, enjoy the photos from my owl prowl of 2013-2014.
Learn more about Amherst Island.
A description of the bird life on Amherst (PDF) from the Kingston Field Naturalists:
A proposal to build up to 36 industrial wind turbines on Amherst Island is being considered. Please visit the Association to Protect Amherst Island to learn more and get involved.
Learn more about Presque Isle State Park.
A Snowy Owl’s plumage can tell you a lot about the age and sex of the bird. Explore this presentation, Snowy Owls: Age, Sex and Plumage (PDF), to learn more. While experts still debate the conventional wisdom, this gives a great start.
Here are some things to keep in mind when looking for and photographing Snowy Owls, who should be departing for their northern breeding grounds by March, or April at the latest.
Use eBird, which can display real-time observations and locations. Start at this page and search by Species, Date, and Location.
Keep your eyes open in wide open spaces that remind you of the Arctic tundra. This is the kind of habitat that Snowy Owls are drawn to as the tundra is where they breed. Good spots are airports, farm fields, and beach dunes.
Keep a respectful distance. In the excitement of the moment, especially if you have a shorter lens, it can be very tempting to get as close as you possibly can to a stationary owl. However, you risk disturbing and flushing the owl, ruining your (and others’, if they’re around) chance to observe it fly naturally. It may leave the area entirely. Further, and more importantly, it’s inconsiderate to the bird, who is resting for a reason. Learn more about the Code of Birding Ethics at the American Birding Association’s web site.
Wait till dusk if you’re hoping for action shots, as Snowy Owls tend to rest during the day and begin to actively hunt as evening approaches. Try to go when you know you might have some clear skies as that sunlight will be needed for the high shutter speed you’ll need to freeze the action. If you can, position yourself with the sun behind you, and hope for a west wind, as birds tend to fly into the wind.
Don’t bait owls to get the shot. You know those dramatic shots where owls are flying directly into the eye of camera, or standing right in front of the camera with an intent look? There is invariably a mouse involved, purchased at a pet store for the sole reason of enticing the owl closer so the photographer’s photo will elicit, “oohs” and “aahs.” Baiting owls is never a good idea: owls associating people with food may lead to seeking out people for a handout, and going near roads to do so. Thousands of owls are killed by cars every year. Plus, store-bought mice can carry salmonella. And besides, it’s cruel to a living, sentient being (the mouse). Educate yourself and others.
Contribute your Snowy Owl photos to Project SNOWstorm. The goal of this research is to better understand, and ultimately conserve, Snowy Owls. They are taking advantage of this winter’s irruption to track individual bird’s movements, and they invite the submission of images of owls in flight in order to attempt to age and sex located birds.