Snowy owls are usually in the Arctic Circle feasting on lemmings. In the winter, though, they travel south in search of food. A couple years ago an invasion year happened where an unprecedented number of snowies made their way south (one even ended up in Florida!). This is thought to have occurred due to a food shortage. Unfortunately, this magnificent year happened before my interest in birds took off.
A snowy owl was reported in Maryland just on the other side of the bay bridge a little over an hour from my friend Megan’s house. Megan chased a snowy owl before – one that had shown up at Dulles airport in D.C. – but, even with a birding scope, she was unable to determine if the bird was on the airfield. The bird in Maryland seemed promising. It had been spotted sitting on the roof of a house and was said to be very easy to see.
I drove to Megan’s where we then drove and picked up two more friends. When we arrived at the docks next to the subdivision with the owl, birders were crawling everywhere (identified by their binoculars) but none of them were looking at the same spot – not a good sign. We scoured the area with them, but it seemed the owl had flown the coop the night before. This is called ‘a dip’. We didn’t see the bird. We dipped.
The spring semester started and I gave up on seeing a snowy owl this winter. I pulled open my computer on January 28th, 2016 to check facebook before my history class when I saw the snowy owl on my news feed. A snowy owl. In Norfolk. An hour away. My professor had just begun his lecture. I could pack up my things and leave, right? I mean, this is a snowy owl. He’d understand. I was sitting in the front row and decided it was too rude and awkward to leave at the beginning of lecture, so I waited.
As soon as class ended I called my boyfriend, who had seen the owl earlier that day, and asked him to pick me up, because I was leaving Williamsburg right then for that owl. I also called Megan, but she whispered through the line, “I’m in lab. I can’t talk”. I whispered over her, “snowy owl, snowy owl, snowy owl”. She later claimed she did not hear me. Matt, my boyfriend, decided to come with me, and we drove to Norfolk. We rolled into the neighborhood and saw the birders / photographers right away. Their binoculars and cameras pointed to the roof of a house where a great white bird was sitting. I parked and ran to the street where the birders were gathered in someone’s driveway ogling the owl.
It was big and white and beautiful. And it was just sitting there with its eyes closed, occasionally peaking those huge, yellow eyes open to glare down at passing dogs and rambunctious children. Neighbors dragged their complaining kids out of their houses and told them they had to look at the owl (“No, it’s cold! I wanna go inside!”). We stood there for an hour, admiring the owl and talking to the birders (some of whom we had met looking at other birds in the state). Everyone was waiting for the owl to fly off and hunt for the night.
“They live in the tundra,” Jessica Ausura, the author of the Bird Nerd column for the Daily Press, told me. “They hunt on the ground, nest on ground, so I think it’s going to head to the beach to eat sea ducks and small rodents tonight.” Everyone seemed to think this as well. Another popular theory was that it would go to a local park and hunt. The owl perked up, its eyes open and head glancing around. Everyone got their cameras ready. A little while later it took off into the night.
The next day the William and Mary bird club (Megan is the president this semester) piled into cars and drove to Norfolk. However, the owl did not return from its hunt the night before. Another dip for Megan. Whenever I mention snowy owls to her I get a pleasant “@$!% off”. Admittedly, I have been boasting quite a bit (and now I’m writing this article about it). I shouldn’t say anything about snowies to her for a while. Then for some event or holiday or something I should get her a snowy owl plush as a present. I’d probably be told to “@$!% off”, but it would be worth it.
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