Updated: Mar 24, 2020
Today's post is the first from our newest guest author, Tina Toth! Thank you, Tina, for sharing this astounding story about finding Snowy Owls!
A Life of Snowy Owling
For most birders, the concept of a “life bird” simply means it is the first time in their life they have seen or heard a bird and then recorded that bird on their life-list. For me, I always feel a deeper connection to the phrase; seeing a particular bird, while it may happen more than once it only happens rarely, and touches me in a way that my life is enriched by it. Snowy Owls are one of those birds.
Snowy Owling from the Past
My first Snowy Owl appeared to me in Colorado, on the famous DIA, "Owl Loop," north of the airport. The owl sat on the ground, a half-mile out in a field, while us birders did a good job of watching from the dirt road and not approaching. That begat the moment of clarity when I realized I desperately needed a better camera and/or optics. The poor thing, in all appearances at that range, was a “bag owl.” Bag owls are what we birders like to call white, plastic grocery bags blowing around in stubble fields.
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The second time I experienced a Snowy Owl, I was traveling from our Toronto office back to our home in Colorado. I made a pitstop in my journey, and my husband flew into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. We proceeded up along Lake Michigan through Milwaukee, spent the night in Green Bay, got to experience Lambeau Field, and tried new restaurants. We went out to Sturgeon Bay to see the lighthouses, another hobby we enjoy. Of course, watching lighthouses is a hobby where the subjects stay put. The next day we went back through Freedom, WI using eBird sightings to look for Snowy Owls, only to find ourselves driving sections of dirt road looking for owl signs: other people in vehicles parked and watching owls. Pay dirt! We spotted an SUV with a stuffed animal Snowy Owl hanging out the sunroof along with a bunch of camera lenses. Obviously fans. And this time I had a better camera!
We were fortunate enough to see two Snowy Owls on this trip. A female, the darker of the two, who posed on an old utility pole, and a male savoring some sunshine in a nearby cornfield.
A Recent Snowy Owl Excursion
Recently, while everyone migrates south to warmer weather, we took a weekend and went north to Glasgow, MT, and then almost to Canada looking for these gorgeous birds. Glasgow is a small town, but in writing stories like this, I contribute to communities that aren’t exactly tourist hotspots, which I really enjoy. Almost every time we check into a hotel, we're asked what brought us there, and I always say we are birders. It helps support the notion that travelers who love the outdoors contribute to local economies.
We stayed at the renovated, and still renovating, historic Rundle Suites (one note: "must love trains" as they do blow their whistles as they come through at night). During our visit we grabbed yummy coffee and buns at The Loaded Toad, strolled next door enjoying the artwork, ate delightful sammiches on homemade bread for lunch at Soma-Dis Deli, and delicious pizza for dinner at Eugene's, in business since 1962. These are not chain restaurants, but they are worth a visit to try something unique, different, and local.
Now, looking for a Snowy Owl against a snowy landscape isn’t all that easy. Again, I used very recent sightings from eBird, searching out places with multiple consecutive reports if possible, laid out a Google Maps route, and hit the road. While we didn’t see any birds at the exact locations provided through eBird, you just know they are out there. Then, while driving along a two-lane paved highway at 65 mph, scanning.every.fence.post, I found one! It was a she, and she just perched and let us sit on the roadside and marvel.
We made for two other locations with no luck, diverted to a dirt road (good idea to have 4WD and/or high clearance in snow country) to avoid following a two-lane wide tractor going 5 mph for who knows how long, and we tripped over another owl. This one perched on a hill line, otherwise I would have never spotted it in a field. She was about a half-mile away as well but a nice find!
The afternoon was spent at Fort Peck Dam, with the lakeside being frozen and the riverside was open.
We found Bohemian Waxwings and Great Horned Owls hooting in the evening at the park at Fort Peck. California Gulls chased Common Mergansers as they surfaced, looking for an easily stolen meal. Redhead and Common Goldeneye were in the rivers and bays, and a Bald Eagle hunted the area, often scaring them up. Given the amount of ephemeral water from snowmelt, this is going to be a happening hotspot soon! It may seem like a long way out of the way, but it's a little corner of the world that is waiting for birders to open it up and see what they find.
Tip: I always say, "Owls and grouse, you can research and plan all you want, but at the end of the day, it’s a lot of luck." On an excursion like this one, do your homework, make sure you have at least one good spotter to go with the attentive driver. Know that you may not see your quarry but learn to enjoy meeting new people, trying new hotels and restaurants, tripping over interesting things like dams and historical centers, and seeing new landscapes.
Live life with "no egrets" and go owling today! Or just grab a shirt...