Last week I had the most fortunate experience of seeing one of the most impressive birds on the planet (in my humble opinion!). Through a tip from a fellow photographer (Joel DeYoung) and via notes from the Muskegon County Nature Club, I learned there have been sightings of snowy owls in the area. The day after Thanksgiving, I was happy to skip the madness of “Black Friday” and set my sights on making my afternoon a “White Friday”.
Armed with snacks and plenty of gear, I headed out to Muskegon. I slowly drove around the area where the birds are said to frequent. After searching for about 40 minutes, suddenly there was a flash of WHITE – and the beautiful, large owl flew up out of an embankment and soared over the open water! Because it has not snowed yet (thankfully!) I was then able to easily track the white bird against the brown brush and grasses.
The winds were howling and despite the fact it was a somewhat warm afternoon, I found myself bundled up in parka, hat and thick fingerless gloves. Keeping an eye carefully on the location where the owl landed, I attempted to sneak up on it on foot with my 500mm Sigma lens. Since it was so windy, the roar helped to buffer my approach. No sooner than I was just about in place, when a car drove by and scared the owl off… over onto the other side of the lagoon. DRAT!
Quickly returning to the car, I drove over near where the owl sat, watching with keen eyes towards the road. The next 20 minutes or so were spent slooooowwly creeping / inching up towards the bird. Each time it turned the back of its head towards me, I’d sneak up another inch or two! Finally, I was within a range to get a more intimate view of the owl. The low sun was filtered through high clouds making for perfect lighting conditions. One look into those large beautiful yellow eyes which gazed back at me – and I was in love.
I hope to get back out to see the owl – other birders have reported seeing two or three in the same location. According to the USFWS National Wildlife Refuge System Field Notes, “Snowy owls’ favorite prey are small rodents called lemmings, which are notorious for boom and bust population cycles. Biologists think the owls’ “irruptions” south from the Arctic occur when lemmings are in short supply. Here’s a map of snowy owl sightings in the Lower 48 so far this fall: http://g.co/maps/r9ub2.”