Monday, February 6, 2012

Finding the Snowy Owl

The winter of 2011-2012 has brought an irruption of Snowy Owls to the Finger Lakes of New York. Normally a resident of the far north, this brings the birder a rare opportunity to see a remarkably beautiful bird. So, when I read a posting that a Snowy Owl was a forty minute drive away, I loaded both camera and binoculars for a Sunday  morning foray.

We arrived at the New York Chiropractic College mid-morning and headed to the tennis court/soccer field area.  From the paved road, it appeared that the field was empty except for a white plastic bag tangled in the supports of a small set of bleachers. But, looking thru our binoculars, we saw THE BIRD!  Oh, wow! Even having looked in the field guide, I was not ready for the striking beauty of this stately bird.

The markings indicate this is a first year juvenile bird. Noting the height of the bleacher seats, this juvenile is still a big bird, likely 20 inches or so in height.

The upper seat  has a regurgitated pellet; that would be the indigestible bits of hair, bone and tooth that will not pass thru the birds system. We later found four of them indicating the bird has been there awhile,and hunting successfully. Given that the birds are here because of a food problem in their normal range, this is a hopeful sign it will survive.

There were Crows in the area, and shortly it moved to a nearby soccer goal.  At one point, not in this photo, it shifted to reveal its claws.  Like any owl, they are formidable.

Anyway, this was a nicer, clearer image of the bird and although in both cases, the owl is resting on artificial features, I liked this image because of cleaner background.

Now, Crows love to harass any bird of prey, and the owl showed some nervous attention to them as they came closer.

 Shortly, the owl took flight again.  The wingspan is huge. My Sibley field guide suggests  52 inches.  This is one really big owl.

Well, I am not sure the move to a nearby tree line was a good one. Perhaps the tree branches did keep the Crows a little more distant. About a half dozen Crows would take turns swooping down on the owl as they screamed insults.

When a Crow came really close, the owl would open its beak widely and probably hiss back a threat.  At other times when the pass was not too close, the owl seemed to ignore the harasser.

It seemed after 5 or so minutes that the Crows had satisfied their need for sport, and began to drift off, still expressing their anger. The owl did seem to quiet down over the next few minutes.

I noted thereafter that the owl was craning its neck downward repeatedly, seeming to be following something on the ground.  Maybe we were to see it strike? The answer is, maybe.
The owl lifted off and flew away into the adjacent farm field. The view was very limited.

It was past noon, and we were hungry.  After finding a nice diner, we returned. The Snowy Owl was still in the field, sitting next to a fence post at a distance too far to photograph.  Hopefully, it had made another kill and would make another step towards surviving the winter to return north.

So, a few words should you be inclined to look for this bird.  The college security person suggested that if was okay on weekends to drive onto the gravel road near the soccer field; probably not okay on weekdays. The gravel road is actually posted against unauthorized vehicles but weekends are pretty quiet.  If you stay in your car on the gravel road, you will minimize the birds reaction to your presence. On weekdays, I would park next to the maintenance building and glass the bird from there or a short distance on the gravel.

Photos with Nikon D300s, lens at equivalent of 780 mm and cropped from that.

Other photos at:


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