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Snowy Owl (female)

Seeing Beauty in the Wind

Spring is coming in on the wind as we write this. Sometime during the winter, the north wind brought in two visitors from the tundra. They still were living among the huge wind turbines that grow in prairie groves in north central Iowa when we visited in March. Snowy Owls do sometimes venture into the mid latitudes around the world, especially when their food supply is limited in their Arctic home.

It was early on a sunny morning with a steady light wind, fast enough for the elegant wind turbines to cartwheel like gymnasts across the blue field of the sky, well above their anchors in the stubble. We hoped to see at least one of the two Ghost Owls as we started our route through the area where they had been seen for several weeks. Snowy Owls are known by many names including the aboriginal Ookpik. That name evokes to ?oooh? that escapes when one encounters these exquisitely beautiful creatures. We turned north off the pavement into their known territory and almost immediately were greeted by the lady of the domain along the unpaved road.

She was perched on a tussock-like clump of a former fencerow on the field side of the ditch. Wearing a young girl?s black and white checked gingham outfit with style, she looked our way for a moment as we stopped our car and then headed west to perch on a post along an intersecting road. We followed her ? well, we followed the road around the corner. As we approached, she moved a bit away from the road to perch on an orange irrigation pipe. The pipe seemed comfortable for her morning observations. We watched her from our car that serves as an oversized camera bag and photo blind.

Our regal hostess would look at us occasionally but mostly ignored us. She would sometimes squint at our lens poking out the window. In between scanning the landscape all around, she took time to preen a bit. When a small flock of geese flew over, she watched them. We wonder if the deep hum of the wind turbines reminded her of the Arctic winds. After she flew out of sight into the corn stubble, we started our hunt for the male.

We looked for the male as we threaded our way around the section roads forming a grid several miles across. We had seen him in this area at sunset two nights earlier. After he moved to a post well away from where we first saw him, we drove up a parallel road a half mile east of his fencepost perch. As we were turning around to leave, we saw him flying our way very deliberately and powerfully, obviously knowing where he was headed. We were impressed by his size and purposeful flight as he passed behind the car and was lost in the dusk. He is very white with some discrete grey hound?s-tooth checkering.

As the morning warmed and the wind lost its bite but kept its speed, we were attracted by the abstract beauty of the wind turbines and found some images that needed to be made. The passing clouds painted the tall white columns and their graceful extended arms with ephemeral shades of pearl, dove and photographers? 18% gray that complimented the colors of the Snowy Owls as they appear and disappear in the landscape. In their turning, the wind blades also dribbled moving shadows across the landscape that vanished as if blown by the wind before they could stick.

Soon we continued the search for the male and did find him two miles northeast of where we had photographed the female. He was in line with the flight path we had seen two days earlier. The Great White Owl (another name) was clumping along a fence row hunting for the best protected vantage point where he could view his surroundings as he rested through the day. Although it was difficult place to photograph him, we enjoyed observing his behavior and sharing the delight of two other birders who arrived to see their first Snowy Owl. They and the birder who first located these owls reported hearing the female vocalize later that day. Females rarely vocalize outside of the breeding season. One wonders if she is considering settling in Iowa. Is Iowa in mid-March like northern Ontario in May? It is an ill wind that blows no good, or so they say.

? Linda & Robert Scarth, 2006.

First published in NatureScape News, 1 (4), 6, 2006.

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Linda & Robert Scarth


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