Tag Archives: Snowy Owl

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

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Chasing the elusive but beautiful Snowy Owls

fromadistancebybrucestambaugh

The Snowy Owl as viewed from the lane north of Mt. Hope, OH.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Birding is one of my many hobbies. I’m not the best birder by any stretch of the imagination. But I consider it a compliment to be called a birder.

I’m not alone. Believe it or not, birding is one of the most popular sports in the world. Birding is an international activity that can be enjoyed by anyone, any age at anytime. All you need are birds and an awareness to see and hear what is flitting right around you.

Birders have long been interconnected. That’s because it’s equally fun witnessing the enthusiasm and excitement of others experiencing the same bird you got to see. Ask my wife. I’ve called her to the kitchen window many a time to view the beauty and antics of our backyard birds.

Today birders connect in many ways. Bird alerts via phone, texts, email and Internet posts keep avid and amateur birders alike apprized of any rarity that arrives. Organizations and clubs also promote birds and birding.

spottedtowheebybrucestambaugh

A Spotted Towhee recently spent several weeks at a feeder at an Amish home west of Holmesville , OH.

Over the years, we’ve had our fair share of rare birds appear in Ohio’s Amish Country. They get noticed here more than other places perhaps because we have so many good birders who live here. Many of them are young Amish folks.

We’ve had Wood Storks, Rufous Hummingbirds, Northern Wheatears, Spotted Towhees and Swallow-tailed Kites. The latest rarity influx has been Snowy Owls.

When my friend, Robert, called just before Christmas and asked if I wanted to see a Snowy Owl that was reported near Mt. Hope, I was elated. I stopped what I was doing, gathered my binoculars and cameras, and picked him up.

Snowy Owls normally winter in southern Canada. Once in a great while, the impressive white birds will wander farther south into Ohio and other states.

sunpillarbybrucestambaugh

The Thanksgiving Day sunrise produced a marvelous sun pillar.

Robert had also called about a Snowy Owl the day before Thanksgiving. It had been seen between Berlin and Walnut Creek. When we arrived at the location given for the bird, it was gone. We drove around scouting for it without success.

As soon as we arrived back home, Robert received another call that the Snowy Owl had returned to its original spot. It was close to dusk, and we both decided not to retrace our tracks, thinking we could see it the next day.

We were wrong. We were up early Thanksgiving morning. It was frigid, but a beautiful sunrise brightened the horizon with a spectacular sun pillar thrown in for good measure. But no Snowy Owl.

I wasn’t about to miss this latest opportunity. When we arrived at the reported location north of Mt. Hope, the Snowy Owl was right where it was supposed to be. The large white bird with gray speckles sat unconcerned in the middle of a corn stubble field. I took several pictures of the astonishing bird while Robert used my cell phone to call others to confirm the bird’s sighting.

snowyowlbybrucestambaugh

The Snowy Owl seen Dec. 23, 2013 near Mt. Hope, OH.

After soaking in the beautiful bird and quietly celebrating our success, we returned to our respective homes. I alerted other birders about the Snowy Owl. Half the fun in birding is sharing what is found.

Since November, several other Snowy Owls have appeared in more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties. Such an invasion of rare birds is called an irruption. People were reporting and photographing Snowy Owls all around Ohio, and even in other states, including Florida.

I’m glad Robert and I got a second chance at the Snowy Owl. I hope you get to see one, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

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Filed under Amish, birding, column, news, Ohio, photography, Uncategorized, weather, writing

Appreciating the daily gifts we are given

birdersatsunrisebybrucestambaugh

A beautiful sunrise greeted these birders in search of a Snowy Owl.

By Bruce Stambaugh

For much too long already we’ve been enduring an avalanche of cutesy commercials and gimmicky advertisements foisting an assortment of products from A to Z on us. Each one is pitched as the perfect Christmas gift to give.

snowyowlbybrucestambaugh

Snowy Owl.

Catalogues, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, the Internet, even emails push various products for us to purchase for our loved ones. I do my best to ignore them. It’s a bold statement from someone who spent part of his career in marketing.

I understand why all the product promotions are done. Retailers often need productive holiday sales to ensure a profit for the year. I certainly don’t begrudge them for trying.

At my stage in life, I find greater joy in a brilliant but brief sunrise than a glitzy ad. Sometimes on the coldest rural Ohio mornings, the pinks and blues that quickly morph into warm oranges, reds and yellows stir me more than any new car wrapped in a big red bow could.

Joy comes in many packages if we just take the time to notice them, even on the grayest of days. Amid this entire holiday hullabaloo, I have to remind myself to stop and take a deep breath.

Advent is the perfect time to slow down our lives, not speed them up, rushing around trying to find just the proper gift. It might already be right in front of us.

I speak from experience.

When our daughter, now a mother with young children of her own, was two-years old, she would stand on the kitchen counter at our home in Killbuck, Ohio. Together we would watch the birds devour the birdseed we had put out for them. Young as she was, Carrie could correctly identify each species.

Teetering on the rim of the Grand Canyon is an awesome feeling. Sharing that incredible vista with a person who is viewing it for the first time is even better. When it’s your son, seeing his smile is priceless.

When my wife and I braved a frigid winter’s night with a dear couple to search the dark sky for a rare comet, I was cold but hopeful. We rejoiced when we found it, quietly celebrating the event together. No words were needed.

When you go in search of a Snowy Owl, a rare avian visitor to our area, your hopes are high. Even when the bird can’t be located, the camaraderie of other birders on the same search makes up for the whiff. There are no wild goose chases in birding.

When you receive a hand-made card that includes drawings of a cardinal, an eagle and a blue jay, all appropriately colored by your grandchild, you know you are loved. You keep and display that precious gift where you can see it daily.

lookingupbybrucestambaugh

The gifts of life are all around us. We just have to look for them.

When a long-lost relative unexpectedly contacts you, you rejoice and reconnect with someone you may have only ever met once or maybe never. Surprise gifts rule.

When you stand in line for an hour or more to offer your condolences to the family of someone you have never met, you are blessed by the grace and appreciation shown to you by the mourners. Even in grief, great gifts are exchanged.

Advent is a time for reflection, renewing, remembering. It is a holy gift, freely given, gladly embraced.

The din of commercials not withstanding, Christmastime models what it means to give and to receive. I wonder what gifts will unwrap themselves for you and me today.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

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Timing is everything, especially when birding

Courting Egrets by Bruce Stambaugh

I caught this pair of Great Egrets in their courting ritual at the Venice, FL Rookery. The Great Blue Heron to the left didn't seem too impressed.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The weather was dreary and cold, with occasional snow flurries. It was just another winter’s day in Holmes County, Ohio as far as I was concerned. But it turned out to be so much more than that.

I drove the nine miles east to check on my mother, who lives in a local nursing home. I kept my visit short as usual, making sure I had refilled Mom’s bowl of jellybeans before I said goodbye.

As I was driving home a flash of white caught my attention to the right just east of Berlin, center of the world’s largest Amish population. Besides the color, the bird’s large wings, small head and short tail were all instantly noticeable.

I checked traffic and slowed my vehicle. The bird’s rapid, steady flight cut directly across my path right to left, giving me a full, close view for nearly a minute.

By its distinctive wingbeats, its size and color, I reckoned it was a Snowy Owl. Given my situation, I had no other choice. I had to keep alert driving, yet I tried to keep my eyes on this rare bird.

Ospreys at Corolla NC by Bruce Stambaugh

While vacationing in Corolla, NC, I happened upon this pair of Ospreys building a nest on a rooftop.

I didn’t have either my binoculars or camera along. The only thing to do was to keep driving and hope that I could spot it again as I made my way west through town.

Snowy Owls recently had been reported all across the midwestern part of the country, including Ohio. This was far south of their normal winter range. Experts speculated that the owls came in search of food. Normally nocturnal, Snowy Owls will hunt in the daytime when stressed by hunger.

As I motored through two signal lights and the usual clog of traffic in the busy unincorporated village, I kept looking south. I spotted the bird off and on, and saw it gliding as if it was going to land southwest of town.

Once I reached the open area west of Berlin, I again found the white owl, this time flapping its large wings. As I headed down the hill colloquially dubbed Joe T. hill, I lost sight of this magnificent bird. I didn’t know if it had landed or flown out of sight.

My only option had been to observe every detail of the bird that I could while driving. In the birding world, that process is called reckoning, meaning noting the birds shape, size, flight pattern, and behavior.

To be sure of my sighting, I consulted several bird books when I got home. They confirmed what I had seen. I reported the sighting to the rare bird alert. That way others in the area might see the owl, too.

That’s the way birders are. Half the joy of watching birds is sharing what is seen with others.

Amish boys biking by Bruce Stambaugh

Young Amish boys like these young men often will bike miles to go birding.

Ohio’s Amish country is blessed with an abundance of excellent birders, many of them in their early teens. It is not uncommon for them to get a group together, and bike for miles to go birding for a day.

They keep track of what they see, species, numbers and locations. And if they happen to spot an unusual bird, the word gets spread quickly so others may enjoy the opportunity as well.

In this case, I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be at just the right place at just the right time to see a Snowy Owl. I considered myself extremely fortunate to have seen this rare bird.

When birding, like so many other situations in life, timing is everything.

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