It’s got to be good news if it makes Section A of the NY Times, even on a Monday!
We’ve come a long way in wildlife awareness when a Snowy Owl gets a half-page, right-side spread with a five-column photograph (who wouldn’t like that kind of press??) at the top of page A11 opposite National News plumb in the middle of election year politics.
The article can be seen, although less impressively, and read in its entirety on the NYTimes’ website, and makes for great reading amidst the welter of political blarney dominating our recent news. Some inspired editor thought it newsworthy to wing in Mother Nature’s white-plumed messenger to tell us that in spite of all, she is still alive and well and willing to surprise and delight.
After all, “Hope is the thing with feathers” (“…that perches in the soul,”) wrote Emily Dickinson, and interestingly we have quite a few harbingers of hope landing on our several doorsteps. They are being seen from Boston to the Great Lakes, the Ohio River Valley, Kanas, Vancouver and Seattle.
Stepping around the purely symbolic and going straight to the facts, the article is more perplexed than hopeful. The white, two-foot-tall birds which live in the Arctic the rest of the year, are known to fly south in large numbers every few winters in what is known as an irruption, but this year the numbers are unusually high.
Regretably, “One showed up at the airport in Hawaii and they shot it” said Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Montana. “It’s the first ever in Hawaii and they shot it.” So much for hope, at least in Hawaii. Elsewhere the reception was equally enthusiastic but less malefic.
Unlike many owls, the snowy variety are diurnal, or active during the day making them more available to scrutiny than their nocturnal cousins. Their blinding white coloring and piercing yellow eyes are a magnet for birders and nonbirders alike. Think Hedwig, the faithful owl companion of Harry Potter…
Ninety have shown up in Kansas this winter and 40 in Missouri (8 was the highest count previously) delighting the hundreds of people who travel to see them. Additional hot spots include sightings of 10 to 13 in Washington State, 20 in South Dakota, 30 in Vancouver B.C., 21 at Logan Airport in Boston where, thank Hedwig, they were not shot.
Mr Holt suggests that the great draw of the snowy owl may be partly due to a fascination with the birds’ coloring. “White wolves, polar bears, white whales, there is something about white plumage that signifies innocence or purity,” he said. “People don’t flock to see any other animal the way they do white ones.”
Emily Dickinson and I could have said as much.
I saw my first Snowy, pictured here, while doing my field research at PNE airport. He had been hanging around the airfield, usually next to the cone, which I believe he used to hide from his prey. The open spaces of airfields are perfect habitat for them. Unfortunately, as in the caes of Hawaii, airfields are not a safe place for birds, for obvious reasons.
The belief is that snowy owls have been driven south in search of food.
I was at the same airport today, and saw 23 pure white Tundra Swan migrating northward — a real thrill and very unusual for Philadelphia per Frank Windfelder, former president of DVOC (Delaware Valley Ornithological Club), who was with me on both occasions. Frank took the picture of this owl.
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