Chasing Snowies

Only in a spirit of complete attentiveness and wonder can we be freely receptive to Nature’s inspiration – Joseph Cornell.

If anyone would have told me three years ago I would be spending two hours driving around  in -9 below temps with -29 below wind chill looking for a bird, I would’ve laughed in their face and told them they were crazy!

During my first Project 365 I fell in love with birds and nature.  I discovered the refuge that I hold dear to my heart and spent a lot of time there.  Lots of birding, and my sidekick also enjoys it almost as much as me.  Sometimes, like yesterday, she is almost as excited as I am.

Two years ago, there was a Snowy Owl “eruption”.  Sometimes Snowy’s come down from the Arctic Tundra in the winter, when they have a good breeding season, or when the lemmings (their main meal) do not have a good breeding season.  They come down looking for a food source.  Mostly the heavily barred juveniles and females.  There were a few spotted here and there.  Closest to me at that time was about an hour away, and I just didn’t think about heading out to find it. 

Fast forward a couple of years and here we go again.  Scientists say it is normally an “every four year” kinda thing.  So it is very surprising the amount of Snowy’s that are being spotted.  One was even seen as far south as Florida.  One would speculate whether they get back home safely.  Some people have the misconception that all owls are nocturnal.  Not so with the Snowy.  They hunt during the day, in fields.  They sit on top of telephone poles, lamp posts, street signs, store signs, rooftops, close to farms and fields.  Not in the woods, as most owls.  They live on lemmings, rodents such as mice, voles, rats, etc.  By no means am I an expert at birding, photography, or anything else I do.  It’s a hobby.  Yes, I make a little money on the side, but not enough to call home about and I like it that way.  I don’t want this to turn into work, where I grow to hate it.

I just thought I would lead up to the “crescendo” :)  Up to yesterday, there had been 118 Snowy Owl sightings in Minnesota.  WOW.  We certainly have the weather for them this year.   It has been downright frigid in most of the country, so I hear.  A Snowy Owl was spotted by some birders close by in Maple Grove a while back.  With my sidekick’s high school dance team schedule, then Christmas, we really haven’t had the time to chase.  A week ago before we headed back to work and school, we did.  It was a balmy 5 degrees outside.  What I would give for it to be 5 degrees now.  We didn’t head out until afternoon and after a little while searching, we found a darkly barred juvenile Snowy Owl sitting on a lamp post near some gravel pits.  We were excited, this was a lifer for both of us.  We watched it fly away and followed it around, lost it, followed it again.  We did this for about 90 minutes.  We sat and watched it on a building for about 10 minutes.  I took some shots but I do not have the heavy equipment as some others do.  The photos were a blurr and too far away for anything to turn out.  However, we were excited nonetheless.

Enter the deep freeze. On Friday, the Governor of Minnesota ordered all public schools closed today, Monday, because of the bitter temps.  This has not happened in 17 years.  Saturday morning, I headed to the grocery store and ran errands to prepare for what was supposed to be the coldest we have seen in 20 years.  I wasn’t going anywhere after that!  Saturday night as I fired up my computer to work on some editing, I checked out my birding group photos.  WHAT???!!  A Snowy was seen that day in a neighboring city, Ramsey, roughly 8 miles away.  My sidekick said “OMG MOM, we HAVE to go tomorrow.”  I said, “Seriously, do you know how cold it’s going to be?! No way!” Sunday (yesterday) morning I woke up to -18 below regular temp, with a wind chill of -26 below.  This confirmed I was not going anywhere.  At about 10:30 I received an updated email the bird was indeed spotted that morning, and by 12:15 another birder had also reported it.  I checked my phone.  It had warmed up to -6 below with the same wind chill.  Pshaw, I’m not a pansy.  “Grab your coat, bundle up, we’re headed out.”  I texted a friend and asked, “Am I crazy?”. I loved his reply, “Not at all, you’re just VERY passionate about what you do. Good for you!”

By the time we got to our destination, it was -9 below and -29 below wind chill.  The temp was falling. We drove around for almost two hours.  Back and forth within a about a ½ mile square radius.  Saw a couple of other hearty birders slowly driving around. Stopped and talked to one woman.  Nothing.  I took a couple of photos of other things, just in case I didn’t see the owl, which was looking pretty good about then.  We rounded the bend of a side road and spotted a van pulled over. We had been down this road about 4 times already.  The closer we got, I saw the passenger of the van had a lens longer than my arm poking out the window.  My sidekick (who is the eyes of this operation) spotted a Snowy sitting on a rock less than 25 yards from the road.  I almost peed my pants I was so excited.

First rule of thumb.  Do not disturb the birds.  It you are close enough to flush it, you are too close.  They waste too much energy having to fly here and there, away from people.  This guy was pulled over right in front of that bird.  Too close.  I parked across the street away from the bird.  I had gotten my camera ready “hours” ago, LOL.  I took a couple of hundred photos of this beautiful creature.  All while he/she barely moved, lol.  I thought it was a she, just because it wasn’t as heavily barred as a male juvenile.  But I have no clue.  It was magnificent.  My sidekick took a few shots for her photography class.  Then Mr. Arrogant moved the van and thought he would pull a little closer.  Jinx.  The beautiful Snowy Owl flew off before I could change the settings on my camera. It was surreal.

My shots aren’t what a professional wildlife photographer would take. But like I said, I’m not a professional.  And I don’t care.  I love them and they are mine.  I am  happy.  One in the record books for me, just like this bitter cold weather.

As a side note, this morning when I woke up it was -22 below, with a wind chill of -44 below.  And as I write this now, Monday evening, it is a balmy -17 below with a -36 below wind chill.

Keep warm and safe, America :)


Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl
I liked this crop, even though it's not sized properly :)
I liked this crop, even though it’s not sized properly :)
This was how far away I was before cropping.
This was how far away I was before cropping.


8 thoughts on “Chasing Snowies”

  1. You are passionate, and I’ll give you another word–intrepid! I am in complete awe as I hear about the deep freeze. We’re in Southern California and we are 100-plus degrees warmer! Goodness…and you go out birding. Intrepid, I say! But I’m happy to see you were rewarded with a wonderful find! The snowy owl is just gorgeous. Good for you!

  2. Congrats Sheila on these gorgeous captures and your braveness with the cold! The natural coloring around her is beautiful. We’ve had a single snowy that had been hanging around the Chesapeake Bay Bridge for a few days (7 miles from me) but I never got lucky on seeing him/her. That was weeks ago and I’ve still got my eagle-eye out just in case he/she reappears! :-)

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