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.

Multiplying Snowies

25 11 2008
Stratford Snowy Owl - Charlie Barnard

Stratford Snowy Owl - Charlie Barnard

Another couple of birders and I were wondering whether the Snowy Owl reported in Stratford at the same time as the Norwalk Snowy Owl might have possibly been the one that arrived in Westport (as found by Tina Green). Well thanks to Charlie Barnard reading the post and sending me a great snap of the Stratford Owl I think we can safely rule out the Westport bird being the relocated Stratford bird. That means we can now tally 3 seperate Snowies in Fairfield County over the last couple of weeks. I note that a Snowy Owl was reported from Bridgeport today by Charlie (the same bird that disappeared from Stratford 10 or so days ago?) It is certainly turning into a banner year for these beautiful and much sought after owls down on the Fairfield County coast!

2 Snowy Owls in Westport/Norwalk

23 11 2008

Thanks to Tina & Peter Green for supplying the great digiscoped photo’s (above). Pretty conclusive proof that they are 2 different Snowy Owls and pehaps both are still in the locality (Mardi Dickinson reported a similar looking Snowy to the first bird on the 21st back at Calf Pasture). The first bird was reported on November 3rd from Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk and became an overnight celebrity with TV and press coverage, the second bird was found by Tina Green at Compo Beach in Westport on Nov 21st.

You have to start somewhere…

5 11 2008

Snowy Owl - Walt Duncan

After a lovely but all too short break back in London, where my parents insisted that I start this blog, I arrived back in the US just in time to start my winter walks for Sunrise Birding.

It was really great to be back in the USA and to catch up with everyone again after a couple of weeks off. The walks are at the point now where it just feels like a load of good friends meeting up for a weekend excursion. Of course as leader the pressure is always on to find something exciting on the day. This weekend however, thanks to my fortuitous selection of Norwalk as the spot to hit, I knew that there would be a magnificent Snowy Owl at Calf Pasture Beach awaiting us. The bird couldn’t have been much more accommodating if it had tried, perched as it was just a few feet away on one of the jettys that surround the pier.

On the day we discussed the age and sex of the bird and my current understanding is that though generalities can be made on assigning gender to Snowy Owls in the field that it is a little more complicated than just heavily barred = female, lightly barred = male. There is an interesting Cornell page on the topic which can be seen here: Here you can see that immature males are not always so easily separated from females in the field. The key features to look for seem to be the amount of barring on the nape and tail as well as the appearance and size of a pale ‘bib’.

Post walk Walt Duncan one of the walk participants sent me the above picture. What a cracker of a bird and what a great capture by Walt. It is easy to see why this stunning and charismatic arctic bird is probably one of the most sought after species by birders (and Harry Potter fans) across the globe.

Hard to really trump that special bird but it was fun to scan through the flocks of passerines looking for something else of note. Also nice to find a good selection of ducks starting to congregate at 14 Acre Pond.  14 Acre Pond is a great place for ducks in fall and winter and is always on my list of stops when I am in the neighborhood (see my Fairfield County Birding Map in the links).

Complete Trip List: Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Great Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Brant, American Black Duck, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Wood Duck, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Turkey Vulture, Falcon sp (probable Merlin), Wild Turkey, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon, Monk Parakeet, Snowy Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Blue Jay, Fish Crow, American Crow, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, House Finch, Purple Finch, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, European Starling, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Sparrow