Joyously enjoying another snowy owl irruption

snowy owl, Harrisonburg VA

Snowy Owl amid the chaos.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The bird was pure magnificence. It’s chosen perch, however, not so much.

Here was a snowy owl, far from its usual winter range, roosting on a light pole in a large industrial parking lot. I wondered if others saw the paradox of the beautiful bird and its chaotic, manufactured surroundings.

A post of a photo of the bird on a local business’ social media page alerted me to the rarity. The caption simply said, “He’s back!” Upon investigation, I learned that the photo was actually taken four years ago when the last snowy owl irruption occurred.

Ornithologists label such outbreaks of snowy owls as irruptions. Usually, this owl species winters in Canadian provinces and summers further north in Arctic tundra areas. For reasons still being studied, every so often snowy owls venture far beyond that territory to the universal pleasure of birders. During irruption years, the birds scatter far and wide, going as far south as Florida.

To be forthright, I had been a little envious of birders back home in Holmes County, Ohio. A snowy owl had been spotted nearly in the same location as one in the last irruption four years ago, and not far from our former Ohio home.

snowy owl, Holmes Co. OH

The Holmes Co. Snowy Owl. Photo courtesy of Dave Findley.

The Holmes County owl was very cooperative, affording excellent looks and lots of stunning photos of the bird. For many, it was a life bird, meaning it was the first time those individuals had seen a snowy owl. I was happy to hear that the Amish farmer of the land where the owl had settled was glad to host birders as long as they were respectful of his property and kept a proper distance so as not to spook the bird.

The snowy owl in Virginia wasn’t nearly as cooperative. The day my wife and I saw it, it was three football fields away from a farmer’s lane where we observed the bird. The industrial area where it alighted abutted the farm.

We squinted into the early morning sun to see the bird. Even through binoculars, it was hard to distinguish the bird’s more delicate details. A fellow birder, as fellow birders often do, offered us a look through her spotting scope.

I used the full length of my telephoto lens to capture imperfect images of this gorgeous bird sitting contentedly among power lines and steel light poles. I got a better shot through the scope by merely holding my smartphone to the eyepiece. Even then the glaring sun’s rays, defused by growing overcast clouds, gave the photo a black and white look.

digiscoped snowy owl

Through the spotting scope.

That was only appropriate since this snowy owl showed both colors. Layers of black barring covered the rounded owl’s back, indicating that this was either a female or young snowy. The feathers of mature males are almost entirely white.

With the sighting of this Virginia snowy owl, any lingering envy I had of the Ohio snowy melted away in the morning sun. I was contented.

Within days, other snowy owls began appearing south of the Canadian border. Several more found their way into northern Ohio and other states, too, including another one in Virginia.

It would have been too much to expect a snowy owl to appear in the Shenandoah Valley. And yet, here it was, an early Christmas gift perched on a light pole.

That’s just the way life is. When we least expect it, beauty appears in the most unlikely places, even a factory parking lot.

snowy owl, Rockingham Co. VA

The Snowy Owl later found more conducive habitat at another nearby farm away from all the industrialization.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

9 Comments

Filed under Amish, birding, birds, column, human interest, nature photography, news, Ohio, Ohio's Amish country, photography, rural life, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, weather, writing

9 responses to “Joyously enjoying another snowy owl irruption

  1. Very informative! Do you think it is still around here?? Do they stay awhile?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. It is being seen at different locations around the 240 interchange of I – 81, usually on the east side. It was last spotted on light poles in the Walmart Distribution center. You would need a spotting scope to see it. Once they find an area, they usually stay if they can find sufficient food sources.

      Like

  2. They is so cool. I am in a group and so many people post photos of Snowy Owls I’m a bit jealous. I’d really just like to see one. They are just so beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dynna Nemeskal

    I was quite blessed to see one sitting on a fence post in my neighbor’s field. It was dark on my way to work but my headlights gave me a lovely view and it was facing my way. Even saw it flying the next dark morning in the same area. Never saw it again but such a wonderful thing to see one in the wild.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Shelley D Leap

    Hi Bruce! I too was lucky enough to see the snowy owl in Rockingham County Va. a week or so before Christmas. It was sitting on top of another business very near the Interstate. I started following one of the birding sites and it’s been seen many times since then (at the factory parking lot you speak of). But the last three weeks or so, there have been no sightings reported. Do you think it has moved on? Or is it more probable that because it has to be viewed at such a distance, people just haven’t been as interested in catching a glimpse? I live less than a mile away and have rode over there many times lately with no luck. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shelley,
      I’m glad you got to see the Snowy Owl. I’m glad to know that you live so close and can keep track of it. It is possible that the owl has changed locations. It is also possible that, as you have stated, people have lost interest because of the restricted, long-distance locations in which the owl has frequented. The viewing spots haven’t been the best. If you can, please keep checking from time to time. And if you do see it, please post it on the Rockingham Bird Club Facebook page.
      Thanks,
      Bruce

      Like

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