This winter, a small winter thus far, has been one of those so-called “invasion years” in which large numbers of northern owls have descended into the lower 48. We trolls have experienced a virtual blizzard of Snowy Owls this season. They come down every year, but this has been a particularly big one by all accounts. The reason behind this influx is apparently based on the ups and downs of the lemming population in Moosejaw, but I suspect it also has something to do with exchange rates. It’s hard to say exactly how many birds are involved because they do move around a lot. So, perhaps my “blizzard” reference might be a bit overboard (not my exchange comment, however). The numbers are hard to ignore. In extreme S.E. Michigan alone, there have been at least nine separate (individual) Snowy Owls spotted and close to 100 sightings over the entire state. Many more have been seen along the south Erie shore and at least one bird was caught on video trying to buy frozen mice at a Seven-eleven using a stolen Tim Horton’s gift card.
I’ve talked to dozens of folks who’ve seen these birds and a few who have photographed them in action. Since I’ve seen a number of Snowy Owls in the past, I felt no particular rush to try and spot a 2012 version myself. I certainly had no urge to capture my own images of these northern visitors because virtually all the shots I’ve seen have been of calendar quality (except for the blurry store video of the before-mentioned offending owl, of course). It’s not that I didn’t care, it was just that I… um, well… I … didn’t want to… call attention to the fact that I have a short lens. You really need one of those huge back-brace lens in order to get a close portrait of a Snowy Owl. I have one of those little lenses that go “whirr” and extend out only an inch or so and ….O.K., I’ll admit to having occasional bouts of lens envy.
Unfortunately, upon hearing about the location of one of these owls in a farm field west of Dundee and having a free morning this week, I was forced to put all reservations aside. I zipped up my little lens (into its carrying case) and headed out. There was a relatively rare Arctic visitor nearly at my doorstep, after-all, and I am a Naturalist. Besides, the place was close enough so that I could always claim to be just “driving by” in case someone with a big lens showed up.
It is safe to say that 90% of all Snowy Owl sightings are actually white trash sightings. I have been duped countless times by the sight of a rolling Target bag in the middle of a snowless brown field. Many farmers delight in placing white buckets or white plastic things atop remote fence posts. I’m sure there is some practical reason for this practice, but I believe it is attached to some as-of-yet undetermined sinister motive. I have looked at thousands of pieces of white trash over the years in the hope that one or two would turn out to have eyes.
The bird that I was seeking had been spotted in the wide open fields just south of M-50 and just east of the little town of Britton (at the Monroe/Lenawee Co. line). I would have to put up with a selection of Lenawee white trash and farmer tricks before spotting the bird, but there was little risk in the endeavor. The owl had been hanging around for some time.
In short, let me say that the fields in that location were very expansive and very brown. Snowy Owls are white birds that generally perch on or very near the ground. Spotting a large white bird against a brown background should have been quite easy. Snow cover would certainly have changed everything, but the little-lens Gods were with me on this occasion.
After patrolling the area and all the crossroads for nearly a half hour I was beginning to doubt myself. Oh, there was plenty of white trash in the distance. Each resolved itself into either a Target bag or a Clorox bottle upon glassing with binoculars. At one point I was certain that I’d finally tracked down my quarry perched on a fence post. It was the right size and was angled to one side. This sighting turned out to be a white plastic herbicide bottle. Farmers are evil.
After diverting my attention for a few minutes to the mating flights of a pair of Horned Larks, did I give the effort one more chance to fail. I began my slow roll down the muddy road and spotted another Target bag way out (about a quarter mile) in a stubble field off to my west. I glassed the bag and saw it blink. It was the owl.
The bird was a mature male. Male Snowy Owls are nearly snow white (no pun intended) and have very little of the dark speckling that the females and immatures possess. There, like one of those sinless souls that I learned about in Catholic school, this nearly spotless white fellow looked about. He spotted me and my little lens, performed a few nervous head swivels, and then lifted into a low flapping flight that took him further from me and deeper into the center of the field. It was a thrill even if it was brief. It was like witnessing a piece of the un-tamed Northern Lights come to earth.
I did my best to get a shot of that bird – at least one that competed with the store video. My shots serve only as digital proof that the bird was there. In the end, no one else showed up during my encounter so they also serve as proof that I was the owner of the biggest lens on the Lenawee County line during that brief time.