h1

Brushes With Greatness: the Snowy Owl

January 17, 2010

On Monday the 11th I left the house at 4 am and made the 2 1/2 hour drive from Fort Collins down to El Paso County, to search for the recently reported Snowy Owl that had been seen frequently in a subdivision northwest of Falcon, CO the day before. I was not sure of my prospects, knowing that this species can be quite hard to chase because of their nomadic qualities. Nonetheless, I felt that leaving so early would give me the best chances of seeing it if it were anywhere in the area.

I had wondered what the feeding habits were of the Snowy Owl, if these birds hunted at night. If they did, I felt like my chances were reduced, as the bird would likely forage away from this accessible area and head towards who-knows-where. My book “North American Owls” by Paul Johnsgard made no mention of their foraging styles, and the Birds of North America Online entry for Snowy Owl plainly states that it is “[n]ot known if these owls hunt at night, or even by moonlight, during winter darkness.” Fascinating – and this is in fact typical of a fair number of species even here in North America, in that there is still a lot we don’t know about how birds actually live.

I arrived at the subdivision (which I later learned is technically part of Peyton) around 6:40am. The eastern horizon was getting light, and I began my search in earnest. My plan was to go to the western portion of the network of accessible roads and scan the rooftops and antennas for large birds perch atop them, and hope to find silhouettes while scanning with my spotting scope. To my utter amazement my plan worked brilliantly, as I found a suspicious-looking character on a chimney/stovepipe vent some distance away within just 5 minutes. He didn’t stay put for long, but he also didn’t go far, as after a few minutes watching it became apparent that what he was doing was moving around from one perch to the next trying to improve his vantage points for finding prey in the open grassy fields surrounding the widely-spaced homes.

Eventually he found a nice TV antenna to search from.

After I took this shot, he launched again into a distant field, and for a moment I lost track of him. But he emerged again a minute later, and as I followed his flight in the scope I could see that he had something underfoot. I never got a clear look at it, but it was fairly large and dark, like a rat perhaps. That’s all I could tell as I watched him start to tear into it from quite a distance. The light was increasing, and I set up my rig for digiscoping, which I hadn’t tried doing for nearly two years. I hoped that I could just remember how to do it!

The light grew brighter as the sun finally peeked up from the horizon. I realized I could probably swing around and get a better-lit vantage point, and perhaps be a little closer. These digiscoped shots were made from about 250 yards if I had to guess, in very suboptimal light.

These next shots were made from the other side of the cul-de-sac, and the bird is in the same spot as before. I snapped about 2 or 3 dozen digiscoped shots, the vast majority of which were blurry. I blame the camera for most of that, but user error certainly played a part too. Still, a couple images came out ok. This time I was closer, and I estimate the range of these shots to be around 75-100 yards.

The next photo was taken with my handheld SLR and gives you an idea of what the actual distance between me and the bird was. This is fully zoomed out (300mm).

The bird had stayed put in this spot for over 40 minutes. Apparently after eating that large rat, he was fat and happy, and just digesting. A few other birders had arrived and all got terrific looks and photos from here as well. Finally, the bird flew a bit further westward to another grassy spot closer to a house and the road, and the several of us scooted the couple hundred yards along to follow. He perched with a residence in view behind him, which belonged to a fellow who later emailed me and asked for a copy of some of my photos.

At this point my remote shutter-release for my digiscope camera (an ancient Nikon Coolpix 995) had stopped working presumably due to the cold, so the only way I could take steady pictures with it was to use the timer. And that worked fine, although it also meant waiting 10 seconds every time I snapped a picture, and also not knowing where the bird would be looking when I snapped it. But then, as is the case with digital under any circumstance, just snap the hell out of it and see what comes out. Eventually I got a couple real winners:

After a few minutes here the bird flew across the road and into the field just south of us. It was quite a bit further away and in poor light, so my bird photography was done for the day. I needed to head back north to Fort Collins anyway, but I was thrilled about having seen this lovely animal under good light and mild weather. Here was the birder scene as of 8:30am:

The last photo actually has the bird in it too – you might zoom in though. Look for the small white dot in the middle of the field.

Heading back was the happiest 2+ hour drive I’ve had in quite a while. Not even the Denver traffic got me down. How many of those schlubs on I-25 had seen a Snowy Owl that morning? Not many, not many at all.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: