©Bert Gildart: Here in Montana it appears as though the Farmer’s Almanac was correct, predicting back in July that the winter of 2008-2009 was going to be a rough one. When that happens birds normally associated with the far north begin moving south, generally in response to a food shortage.
Though this “harsh winter” is only a few weeks in the making, apparently the sub zeros temperatures we’ve been experiencing in the Flathead – and by those living in other northwestern portions of the state – have already been felt in Arctic regions. That could make hunting for lemmings, their preferred food, difficult. Normally, an adult Snowy Owl may eat more than 1,600 lemmings a year, or three to five every day.
FOOD SOURCES CHANGE
Lemming populations are apparently changing right now, driving this evanescent owl south, where it is exchanging a diet of lemming and other mice-like creatures for rabbits.
That’s what happened several years ago when I photographed this ghost of the north, and it is happening again this winter. Bird watchers have reported a number of sightings, and should you see its ghost-like form set against a bank of snow, I think you’ll agree that it is indeed a magnificent owl.
Males are almost completely white-colored while females and young Snowy Owls have dark spots lining their bodies. Younger birds have more gray than white in their feathers, looking like dirty snow. Chests are barred with lines of black or gray and white, while their wings may have flecks of black among the white. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is a male, female or a young Snowy Owl.
Because these ghosts of the north need added protection against harsh weather both sexes have heavily feathered feet.
SNOWY OWL I.D.
If you’re out looking for Snoweys they may be difficult to see. A reporter at the Missoulian, one of the state’s larger papers, writes that Snowy owls are bigger than crows and smaller than eagles. “That doesn’t make them easy to spot,” says the reporter. “For much of the day, the owls sit like bumps in the furrowed field. They barely move, except to occasionally turn their heads. When immobile, snowy owls look like blobs of white frosting on an angel food cake.”
That, I think is a pretty apt description, and I’m delighted they’re back in the state.
EVER HEARD OF THE HAWK OWL?
Another owl that periodically shows up in Montana during harsh winters is the Hawk Owl. I know what they look like as I was able to photograph one four years ago in Jasper, Alberta, about 300 miles north. It was late fall, meaning winter was fast approaching this Canadian national park. If this winter turns out to be everything the Farmer’s Almanac predicts, then you should keep your eyes open for this diminutive little fellow. But you’ll have to look sharply as they are small.
We’re heading south just as soon as the weather moderates, so we probably won’t see a Hawk Owl near home. But if you’re turned on by rare birds and live in Montana, this winter could be a big one for you. But who knows, it may also be a first in the state for us, too, as the weather shows no sign of moderating. Right now it’s about 2 above, the wind is blowing, and the snow is coming down hard. Somehow we always find a window of opportunity that is conducive to towing our Airstream, but not always the precise date we have marked on our calendar.
For information specific to Ninepipes, a refuge just south of us here in Northwest Montana, check the Owl Research Institute at http://www.owlinstitute.org Information on Kate Davis and Raptors of the Rockies can be found at: http://www.raptorsoftherockies.org.
By doing a bit of poking you’ll find similar sites in your state.