Snowy owl sighting makes trip special

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snowy owl

Usually, after Thanksgiving, things slow down a bit on the farm. Crops have been harvested and hay is being sold instead of the hard labor of baling. If a buck was harvested during bow season, even hunting slows down.

This year was a little different because maintenance issues slowed down getting the crops done. The big ghost buck remained, well, a ghost instead of filling our freezer. I secretly added items to my “Honey Do” list until everything was finished.

Imagine my surprise after the delayed ending to hunting and farming when the boys wanted to take the boat out for steelhead fishing on the Grand River. I couldn’t believe it!

Setting aside the fact that my “Honey Do” list would remain long, the weather had to be considered. I have lived in Lake County. The closer you get to the lake, the colder it feels regardless of what the thermometer reads. They could pile on the layers, but it would still be a cold day of fishing.

It was an easy decision to attend a Christmas event with the girls while the boys headed for the lake.

Boating and fishing are some of my favorite activities. I was feeling a little torn until I started sipping hot chocolate and eating popcorn while wrapped in a sweater.

Much to my amusement and their disappointment, the boys were having terrible luck fishing. They only caught two small shad, a good baitfish. The steelhead remained elusive. This made my hot cocoa taste even more decadent.

Surprise spotting

Then, I received the text that made me really regret my decision to remain warm and cozy inside. A snowy owl was spotted along the bank of the Grand River.

Seeing a snowy owl in the wild is usually a once or twice in a lifetime occurrence. They were able to see it well from their spot on the river. In the photo they texted me, it looked at first like a large rock on the bank.

Looking like a rock from a distance is a fairly good description of what snowy owls look like in the Arctic tundra. In my mind, it’s crazy to think that an animal that is born in the Arctic regions makes its way to Ohio.

Other animals of the Arctic region include polar bears, caribou and legendary narwhals. People would freak out if a narwhal was seen swimming off the coast of Lake Erie! They might panic if a polar bear was plunging in the Grand River. Yet, here was a snowy owl, sitting majestically next to a cement breakwall.

Snowy owls are quite large; their wingspan can be slightly over five feet. By body mass, they are the heaviest owls in North America.

My youngest son was excited to show me using his own head, how owls can scan their surroundings without moving their bodies. Their distinct yellow eyes are watchful, looking for small mammals to eat.

Snowy owls typically eat voles, lemmings, other rodents and small birds. However, sometimes they will eat large birds too.

The snowy owl they spotted along the Grand River had a salt and pepper look due to its speckled feathers. This coloration is typical for females and juvenile males. As a male matures, its feathers turn mainly white.

Females are larger than males. They make their nests in the Arctic tundra on the ground. They surround their nests with a wreath of dinner, mainly the voles and lemmings brought to them by the males.

Waiting for irruption

Photographers and birdwatchers are hoping for another irruption of snowy owls. An irruption is an unusually large amount of birds migrating south into the lower 48 states.

Some owls stay on the Arctic tundra where temperatures can reach -80 degrees Fahrenheit while others travel south and cause the phenomenon known as an irruption. Smaller irruptions typically occur every four to five years.

Mega-irruptions are far less frequently occurring, only once or twice in a lifetime. The last mega-irruption was in the winter of 2013-2014. Most research points to an abundance of food in the Arctic during the previous breeding season as the cause of irruptions.

Clutch size increases from the low size of about three eggs to a large size of 11 eggs.

Snowy owls can most likely be seen in wide-open spaces. They are attracted to areas like airports because they resemble the tundra. Food in the form of small mammals is also readily available to them.

They seem magical and out of place during a barren Ohio winter. Many people are familiar with snowy owls due to the fictional character of Harry Potter. His pet owl, Hedwig, was a snowy owl. Other people are just content to see a glimpse of a creature from a faraway land.

As for me, I won’t pass up my next chance to head for Lake Erie, although I hope it’s not in a boat. I will also layer up my clothing and pack a thermos.

Birders can enter their county and state to check for updates on sightings by others on the website eBird.org.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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