“Birds are breathtaking when they are rare. Birds are breathtaking when they are brightly colored. Some birds are breathtaking because they are spectacularly implausible. The Horned Guan, a cloud forest turkey with a red traffic cone glued to its forehead, is implausible. And some birds, like this massive all-white owl with piercing yellow eyes in a snow-white landscape against a bone-white sky, are breathtaking because they are impossible.”
No one could remember the last time that a line had formed in customs. The Polar Vortex had trapped Canadians in the south, and with a break in the weather the flip-flopped hordes began returning north. Several flights arrived simultaneously in Regina a few minutes past midnight. The one security guard on duty had never seen anything like it.
The customs officer doubted our explanation for the trip. No one could possibly visit Regina from Texas in the winter for fun. Business? Sure. Family? Believable. Fun? Not a chance.
We weren’t in Regina for fun, at least not a fun that most Canadian customs officers would find believable. We could have slipped through by playing the hockey card. But bird and aurora chasing didn’t fit any profile in the tourists-coming-to-Regina-in-winter protocol.
After several minutes of eyebrow raising and lip quivering, our officer decided that we were harmless, if unprecedented, and we were on our way. We shouldered our bags and stepped into a sub-zero vacationland.
Prairies are subtle landscapes no matter the season. Winter pegs one extreme end of the aesthetic. Snow and ice glaze every surface. Shelterbelts are rows of flocked trees. The only exception to black, white, and gray is an orange sunrise peeking over the horizon before the sun is shrouded in freezing fog again.
There would be no auroras this trip. The cloud, fog, and snow cover refused to budge. The promised coronal mass ejections careened away before reaching the planet (aurora forecasting is an imperfect science). We were somewhat comforted by knowing that the sky above the dingy gray shroud didn’t shimmy and shake with iridescent reds and greens.
Yet here we were, ensconced in the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. What to do? Outside looked as inviting as an icecap sans polar bears or penguins. We learned that the regional hockey playoffs were around the corner. And what about curling, asked the clerk at the front desk?
We passed on these Canadian favorites. We decided to wander west to Moose Jaw instead. How could we miss Moose Jaw (although Craven sounded lovely as well)?
West of Regina is like north, south, and east of Regina. Regina is an urban island floating in a vast ocean of prairie grass and farm lands. To see Moose Jaw is to see southern Saskatchewan. We could keep the sample size small.
Then, I saw the ghost.
Power lines follow the highway between Regina and Moose Jaw. I noticed the indistinct outline of a bird on one of the poles as we neared Pense. I did not see a bird, only a bare sketch. In fact, no matter how much I fingered the focus knob, no bird came into view. Only after a minute or two did two bright yellow eyes coalesce in the bleached sky.
Most winter birds in Regina are colored like the landscape. Black-billed Magpies are black-and-white. Crows and Ravens are black. Gray Partridges are gray. Magpies, Crows, Ravens, and Partridges are easy to see against the snow. A Snowy Owl, however, blends with the white sky and white ground. A Snowy Owl in Regina is white-on-white-on-white. This is particularly true when the Snowy Owl is an adult male.
Snowy Owls do not nest near Regina. This arctic owl only nests north of the polar latitudes, where they feed lemmings to their young. In years when the summer lemming population swells, Snowy Owls surge in numbers as well. In bumper years young owls are forced south in winter in search of food and irrupt into southern Canada and the northern U.S., areas where enough people live to actually see, report, photograph, and chase them.
Remember that most of the owls forced south are young birds.
Only adult male Snowy Owls are completely white. Males take as long as four years to attain this immaculate plumage. Young Snowy Owls are white with extensive black hatch marks and scalloping. Young Snowy Owls look dark from a distance, and stand out again the snow much like a Magpie, Crow, or Raven. Since most of the Snowy Owls that push south are young, most of the birds we see in the Lower 48 are dark.
In fact, although I had seen many Snowy Owls in many states, I had yet to see an all-white male. Until now. Until Regina.
I stood outside the rental car and attempted to photograph the specter from the icy edge of the highway to Moose Jaw. The lens struggled to find enough contrast between the white sky and even whiter bird to focus. The owl glided down from its perch and evaporated into the freezing fog in an instant.