Bigby Snowy Owl

1 04 2011

Snowy Owl - Ed Sailer

My first twitch of the season! When I heard that there was Snowy Owl hanging out on the docks by the old Breakers Restaurant off of Manitou Beach Road, just half a mile from the house, I could hardly not go. As I have said before on this blog, twitching is not really for me, but I wasn’t going to not go see a Snowy Owl just ten minutes walk from the house. After I stopped in to see the bird on the way home, I drove back to the house before hiking back over to see the guy all over again for my Big Green Big Year. Probably the second rarest bird seen so far this year after the Barrow’s Goldeneye, but to most people a little more exciting! Friends of mine sometimes pull my leg for the time I told everyone that  I hate ducks 😉

From here on anything I say in this post that is complete and utter rubbish is completely and utterly my fault for misinterpreting what Tom said.

After a few people had put out phone calls to get people to see the bird, one of the local Braddock Bay Raptor Research banders, Tom McDonald, took a shot at recapturing this bird (he’d actually caught it earlier in the season). Whilst we waited to see if the owl would take the bait, I got to talk to Tom about Snowy Owls and banders. There isn’t much Tom doesn’t know about Snowies, having caught and banded many hundreds over the years, probably as many as any bander in the US (or even the world?). He’s currently working on a book all about the birds and I was lucky enough to see some of the plates that he was working on – looks like it’ll be a pretty cool tome.

So with  Tom cornered whilst we waited to see if the bird would take the trap bait, I finally got an answer to the one question that has always flummoxed me when it came to Snowy Owls. I remember being told by a number of birders that the Snowy Owls that we would see in Connecticut each winter were basically birds that had been pushed a long way from their usual territory, were in poor shape and likely to never make the return journey to the Arctic to breed but rather end their days dying emaciated in those ‘southerly’ climes.

I have often wondered whether this rather tragic view of these individuals is one of the reasons people seem to get so fired up about anyone (read photographers) putting pressure  on birds when they show up in the state. After all Snowy Owls are pretty much  just as happy being active diurnally as they are nocturnally, unlike the other owls that get equally harassed by photographers and birders who seem to have never even heard of the ABA code of ethics. Now not that I want to give photographers a pass on crummy behavior, but in talking to Tom this image of the doomed Snowy seems to be a common but incorrect assumption of these wandering individuals. Personally it never really made sense to me that an emaciated bird that was struggling to find food would even make it down as far as Connecticut if it really was starving. Why travel all that way to die, when traveling takes energy!

It seemed only logical to me that there must be a successful strategy being worked on for the birds to head all that way to Southern New England.  Just to make it that far requires a heap load of energy, so they must be doing something right along the way. Also when I have had time to spend some time with some of these individual roaming Snowies, like the bird at Piermont Pier (which was hanging out with and providing scraps for the Ivory Gull), or the one from Norwalk – which pretty much kicked off this blog (here) they seemed to be hunting very successfully thank you very much.

Tom says that his banding studies reflect this state of affairs as well, and that he has very rarely trapped emaciated birds around Rochester. All raptors can struggle to find food, but most of the birds he finds are rather in rude health like the bird in the shot above (Any birding chums want to take a shot at aging and sexing the bird?) which weighed in at over 1600 grams.  In fact birds that are found to be starving are usually young birds that never really seem to make it that far from the nesting site, not the ones that have traveled a long way.

Talking to Tom it’s easy to understand his awe for these birds, the passion and reverence that he obviously has for them. They are incredibly successful hunters that take a variety of prey and this particular bird was sitting by the remains of a number of carcasses including a Ring-billed Gull, and Tom told me that he has known them take a swipe at something as large as a Canada Goose. He also talked about his many adventures chasing round looking for them on their breeding grounds or simply sitting quietly ,studying their amazing interactions and hunting techniques with a nightvision scope!

Anyway it is good to know that these birds that one sometimes hears (from generally reliable sources) are doomed are rather not quite as doomed as commonly suggested, but are almost certainly following a tried and tested migratory pattern to get through the winter season. It was amazing to talk to Tom about the birds as it’s always a treat to converse with someone who really knows so much and is so passionate about an individual species, and individual species don’t come much more exciting and inspiring than a Snowy Owl. Thanks also to Edward Sailer for the pictures.

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