Thursday, January 09, 2014

In Search of Marshmallows

By Susanna Danner, Director of Protection

When I went home to Massachusetts to visit my family this Christmas, I had an agenda besides my typical holiday pursuits of assembling jigsaw puzzles, eating ham, and wrapping presents. I wanted to see my very first snowy owl.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus). Photo ©Janet Haas

You may have heard about the snowy owl irruption of 2013. The word “irruption” shares the same Latin root as the word “eruption,” but it means to burst in, rather than to burst out (like lava.) These enormous arctic birds have been bursting into the northern United States this winter, including in our neighbor states of Montana and Washington. The “polar vortex” that froze the central and eastern U.S. in early January probably felt like old home week to the snowies visiting the States.  These birds have feathered feet and legs to protect them from the cold, and one thing that makes them easier to find than other owls is that they perch on low posts, fences or the ground. Where they come from, tall trees are less common, so these birds are comfortable perching low.

The reasons for this irruption, which is one of the largest on record, may have to do with climate change. Conditions in the Arctic are changing dramatically, and scientists speculate that changes in sea ice, small mammal population dynamics, or seasonal temperatures may be factors in this owl incursion.

Several snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus) had been observed at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge near my hometown, so my mom, my sister-in-law and I decided to put on our parkas and go birding. At the refuge entrance, we asked the ranger where we might have luck finding snowy owls. “Look for the cars,” he said. Apparently we weren’t the first bird tourists of the day.

We drove to the end of the refuge, past a few clutches of idling cars. All we could discern through our pocket binoculars were white refuge signs masquerading as white owls, and the previous evening’s snowfall made picking out white shapes on the icy salt marsh a challenge.

Sus and her mother owling. Photo courtesy Sus Danner.
We climbed an observation tower and saw a pair of mute swans winging their way just above the low tide, but no owls. Just when we were losing hope, a couple of local birders climbed up the tower stairs and renewed our resolve.

If you’ve ever birdwatched in winter, you know that while the weather conditions can be tough, the people are often a joy. There is a siege mentality to winter birders. The sentiment seems to be, “if you’re out here braving frostbite and hypothermia, you’re my friend.” The local birders seemed thrilled that we were out on the refuge, and gave us unexpected advice on how to find a snowy. “Look for a marshmallow,” they said.

I had read how large snowy owls are (two feet tall!) and so I had been looking for a big white Doric column among the salt marsh grasses. But the owls hunch up to conserve heat, and their proportions are marshmallow-like. Now that we knew what to look for, we found one right away. Sitting on a sand dune, just above the slate-colored Atlantic Ocean, we found a preening adult snowy owl. A giddy group of us formed, helping each other pick out the bird amongst the pale dunes.  Another benevolent local birder saw us peering through our binoculars and stopped to offer us a look through his spotting scope. In the scope, I could see the speckled black on the owl’s shoulders, and its blazing yellow eyes.

Huddled around the scope with a group of birders from all over the world, with a biting wind coming in off of the sea, my feet numb with cold, I couldn’t have been happier.


ToolGirl said...

Love this - how unforgettable. Birders are a rare and special group of humans.

Damon Jespersen said...

Nice article Suz! Maija had a great time chasing the owls around as well. Why are they so active during the day?

Anonymous said...

Way cool ... I have not heard of any in Southern Idaho this year. Last year in Fairfield and before at Idaho Fish and Game Nampa headquarters sitting on a shed roof. Great story and outing.