Sunday, January 8, 2012

Searching for snowies

By way of introduction

Even non-birders know about the snowy owl irruption. Since birding is what I'm best known for amongst my acquaintances, at least once a week someone's said to me, "Hey, I thought of you when I read this article in the paper about these snowy owls coming down from the North all over the place. There was just one seen in (fill-in-the blank spot). Of course, with you being into birds and all, I'm sure you already know about it."

I have tried to be gracious and encouraging, even though as time passed it was getting to be a bit of a struggle not to sound bitter on the subject of snowy owls. Sure, they're super-cool and it's no wonder that birders and non-birders alike are interested, but it felt like everyone on Earth had seen one except me. And that was not for lack of trying, believe me.

First I drove up and down the country roads of McLean county, IL, searching for one that had recently been seen there, and dipping out, consoled myself that I had a trip to the Upper Peninsula right around the corner, and they'd been seen everywhere up there. I dipped out once again, and returned home with a heavy heart.

Was I in the process of forming a nemesis bird? Would I ever spot a snowy owl of my own?


I guess the question isn't as fraught with suspense as it might have been, as the photo at the top of this post shows, um, a snowy owl. So either I stole someone else's photo off the Internet to pass off as my own (mwa ha ha), or I actually managed to see a snowy owl. As far as option one goes, I'm probably an unreliable narrator, but I'm not that bad, so that leaves us with the second choice. Well, I might as well just blurt it all out....

Yesterday Greenturtle and I went to Montrose Harbor in Chicago, and saw not one, but two, snowy owls on the lake front. Hooray! And that's really the gist of this story, so you can stop reading right now if you want! But if you'd like a few more details....

The details

I knew from keeping a close eye on the ebird alerts that two snowies were still being spotted at Montrose Harbor in Chicago, so I persuaded Greenturtle to go up and help me look for them by promising a trip to the Field Museum after we'd achieved this. Either he loves me a lot or he really, really wanted to look at some dinosaur skeletons, because we woke up at four o'clock and drove three hours to the lake front at Montrose Harbor.

Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Rural Birder (I'd call my memoirs that, except for the fact it makes me think of that skit from 30 Rock where no one understands the name of Jenna's movie; if you don't watch 30 Rock just ignore this part...but if you do, kinda funny, right?), I was excited about visiting the Big City and wondering what birds I might see.

The harbor is home to the Magic Hedge, a location that is famous in birding circles, at least here in Illinois, for its fantastic fall-out during migration. I was happy to see the Magic Hedge with my own eyes, for although not much bird activity was in evidence, I knew that I would probably make a return trip later in the year as part of my Ultimate Illinois Birding Year. The shrubbery was all cordoned off with ropes, which I assumed had been done to protect the exhausted birds when they touch down here during migration. True enough, but it seems that it's not just birders who need to be kept out. And this, folks, is one example of why I'm a Rural Birder!

Luckily, we quickly found not just one, but two snowy owls, perched on the end of a promontory along the harbor. The owls had quite a fan club gathered around, complete with some paparazzi sporting very high-end cameras waiting for them do to something photogenic. We joined the perimeter of the small group and admired them, but before we'd had a chance to get a good look, a woman jogger shuffled right past the groups of birders and ran out towards the edge of the point.

"She's going to flush the owls!" I said to Greenturtle.
"I don't think she cares," he said.

And sure enough, as she ran past, one of the owls took flight into the sunrise.

One of the birders had the guts to stop her and tell her what she had done. She pulled her earplugs from her head, shrugged, and continued on her way. She was either inconsiderate or oblivious to the fact that she had spoiled a moment for the rest of us, and I don't know which is worse.

Luckily, there was still one snowy for us to admire.

We talked for a couple of minutes with the other birders, who mentioned how the owls (both either females or juveniles by their coloration) would sometimes try to rest on the beach until they were disturbed by someone letting their dogs run off-leash. Of all the places the owls could spent the winter, is Montrose Harbor, so full of joggers, dogs-walkers and even birders really the best place they could have chosen? Will all these disturbances impact their chance for survival? In any case, the owls have been here for the past month or two, so hopefully they will be able to head back to the Arctic tundra in the spring to create more owls.

It's the kind of thought I wish I could ignore, because it's obviously much more fun just to enjoy seeing some snowy owls. It's like the niggling guilt I always feel about one of these long trips--wow, what a lot of gas to get here and back.

And on the way, I noticed yet another gigantic wind-farm that had sprung up overnight like a ring of mushrooms, stretching along both sides of the highway along the Livingston/Grundy county border. As it was dark for us both coming and going, my sense of the turbines was formed mostly by the vast forest of blinking incarnadine eyes in every direction. I dread seeing what it looks like in the daylight, as one of my favorite nature spots, Goose Lake Prairie, isn't too far from there.

What else I saw

Mergansers, and lots of them, male and female, red-breasted and common. Common goldeneyes, and a pair of horned grebes. I even got a glimpse of a black-crowned night heron hunched by the edge of a pond as we drove down Lake Shore Drive.


  1. I wish I had known you wanted one so bad. I would have tried to contact you when I found the one on Highway 24. I was a little afraid to post the location because of the mania. I'm glad you got to see the owls at Montrose. By the way, you should check the Central Illinois Birding site, and that's all I'm going to say. :)

  2. No worries, Ben. I understand about wanting to protect the owls, and actually another birder did post the exact crossroad along Highway 24 where the owl was seen, so it was just my bad luck I couldn't find it. And we ended up having a great time in Chicago, so it all worked out. :-)

  3. I'm so glad you saw Snowy Owls in Chicago! We felt terrible that you had to leave the UP owl-less. I'll never forget seeing mine, a white bump on a white hump of snow, and watching his head turn towards me and looking back with those big eyes. And,it's a good thing you have owls on the beach, and not those huge lizard-things in your one photo! Mom

  4. That "lizard thing" is actually called a dinosaur. :-) And I think we should all be glad we don't have those rampaging along the beach!