Finally, a Snowy Owl


The problem with taking so much time off from writing is that I now have way too many stories to tell. I can talk about my new interest in birding. I can talk about my trip to visit friends in South Africa. I can talk about the stroke I had way too young. I can talk about the beautiful sunrise this morning, or the recent snowstorm that left us with a deep cover of white. So how to start back up again? 

One thing I find irritating is blogging about blogging so I won’t do that. Why have I not entered anything here in such a long time? Do you really care? If a story has power it is in the telling of the story. We get little from learning why the telling was delayed. So let’s just lay that to rest right now, shall we?

How about I start with the snowy owl? There has been an irruption of snowy owls this year. You may have heard of this, of course. Snowy owls have made the news all over the United States. They are white and showy and downright beautiful. Heck, if snowy owls can hang with Harry Potter they must be magical, right? I think they are.

I have been hearing about them for months now. We live next to a set of open fields which, I would imagine, would be just what a traveling snowy owl would look for. There are trees and barns to perch on, fields full of mice and voles, and open space to fly. Why wouldn’t they come here? I have been fooled more than once by the white of a pale red-tailed hawk but so far there have been no snowy owls around here. So this morning I decided to go find one.

These birds have been reported in Addison County multiple times and, since that is only one county over, I figured it was worth a drive. I listened to a great episode of Snap Judgment on the way down but still, it seemed like it took forever to get there. “There” was the viewing spot on Route 17 at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. I had heard that just yesterday snowy owls had been spotted from right there. Awesome, I thought. That spot is easy to find, a quick pull-in and if the birds are there, it is a good spot to park while I watch. But the birds were not there.

Birders were there. A handful of cars were parked with a few binocular-toting bundled-up folks looking around. The sign of a great bird nearby, if there is a group of birders on hand, is a cluster of arms and a passel of optical devices pointed in one direction. That I did not see. I did see a couple people next to their Subaru with a spotting scope so I thought maybe they had something. Turns out it was a red-tailed hawk, out to fool me again. They said they might have seen a snowy owl down the road, but they were not sure. Another couple stopped and said they saw one for sure, farther south, this morning. I looked around for a few more minutes and headed south. 

The problem with looking for owls while driving is that it is less safe than it might be. It is hard to try to focus on finding something white in fields of snow while looking at a road covered in patches of drifting snow at fifty miles per hour. When no one was behind me I slowed down, but still, I needed to stop. After several miles I did stop. I saw another red-tailed hawk but also a rough-legged hawk–a visitor for the winter from farther north. That was a score. Unfortunately, I was pretty distracted by this point. After a couple cups of coffee and a bottle of water I was feeling ready to bust.

Now this is a rural area, so a rest room was not going to be found close by. I knew I could drive a while to get back to one, but I still had an owl to find. There are not many houses around, but the sight lines are far. I didn’t want anyone seeing some creep stopping on the side of the road to take a leak. So I turned around, my goal now to find an isolated and hidden spot to take care of things. I saw a side road with a clump of trees far down it. I was desperate at this point so took a right. Not far down the road I saw a white lump on a fence post. I got closer and could hardly believe it. Here was my owl. 

There was a car pulled over and I stopped well before I got to it. I looked through my binoculars. I looked through my scope. I didn’t leave the car. I was in too much pain by now. The owl was very cool. The other car left. I took my chances and got out of the car, relieving my pain with a clear view down the road. 

Now I was ready to look at my owl. It was regal and bright and just what I was hoping for. It was close to the road enough to see it clearly. After a while it flew off, tired perhaps of being watched. Wow, I thought, that was a snowy owl. Awesome. But I wasn’t done yet. There were other birds nearby, including a bald eagle soaring overhead. And there was a flock of snow buntings–more winter visitors. There were so many it was hard to count, but there were at least fifty, flying together over the fields and landing as a group on a semi-clear patch. These little guys are white and brown, like little cousins of the snowy owl. They were quite a sight. I stopped and looked at them for a while and I noticed some were not snow buntings after all. They were horned larks.

Since I had never seen these birds before I watched them for a while. Two new life birds for me in one Vermont winter day. Plus a couple birds that won’t be around when spring arrives. Not bad. I headed back satisfied and happy, and got home in time for lunch. Lesson for the day? Too much coffee means finding an awesome bird. I’ll have to see if that lesson proves true again another day.

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