Friday, January 08, 2016


We caught a glimpse of a bird a couple of weeks ago along the back road which has become our default route to the city. Mary saw it; I was driving, so I only caught a fleeting impression of it. It was starkly white against the grey winterscape of bare trees and fallow fields,

Our first thought was of a seabird blown far inland by the recent rough changes in the weather, but it was solitary; then we recalled the other brilliantly white bird we had seen nearby, the Cattle Egret. But somehow, this didn't seem to be that.

Yesterday morning I drove the same section of road, and crowning one of the jagged trees that arched over the road was the largest, whitest bird I've ever seen. It's hard to describe why it appeared so white; maybe it was the dull grey sky it had for a backdrop. I've seen bigger birds, and I've seen whiter birds (though not by much) but this bird took some kind of prize.

With what in hindsight was a foolish recklessness, I slammed on the brakes, pulled over onto the grassy shoulder, put on my hazard lights, and jumped out of the car for a better look.

Stopping put me square in the bird's blind spot. And as I discovered alongside the wintry backroads of South Dakota three years ago, big raptors don't much care for having people in their blindspots. It took wing in an instant.

Fortunately for me, it flew across the road and away in the direction I was facing. It swooped down low over the frosty ground before rising up to settle on a slender branch near the top of the tree. The flare of its tail and spread of its wings revealed no trace of pigmentation that I could discern.

Only as I write this do I remember the pair of binoculars that have rattled around under the seat of the car for a couple of months now. This would have been a good time to make use of them, I believe...

When I report my sighting to Mary, confirming the presence of the mystery bird, she recalls a salient detail from the previous week's sighting that did not register at the time absent a broader context--the white bird dropping directly from its perch to the ground below--likely seizing a furry morsel from the dry grass.

Yep. Pretty sure it's a Snowy Owl. Like Harry Potter's 'Hedwig.' But I really can't tell you much about it from the roadside a good quarter-mile from where it now sits. But Snowy Owls are one of those boreal birds that undergoes irruptions*. Irruptions are Malthusian events, driven by the ebbing and flowing of populations of prey and the things that prey feed upon. They are not migrations, but relatively brief and unpredictable forays beyond normal territorial ranges.

Snowy Owls are not entirely unknown in our area; an irruption over 2013-2014 brought many Snowy Owls to the mid-Atlantic area, and apparently a Snowy Owl sighting is a big deal to be able to add to your birding life list. I feel very fortunate for my early morning encounter. Hell, it was the high point of my day, and it came at 7:35 in the morning!

*Interesting word, with an intersting etymology.

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