Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dreaming of Snow

For the past two nights, I’ve dreamed about Snowy Owls.

In the past several weeks, these magnificent raptors from the far north have been seen across New England and New York as they make their way south in one of their periodic irruptions. About every three years, Snowy Owls spread out across a larger than usual wintering range, wintering further to the south than usual.

(The illustration is from Birds of America, by by Louis Agassiz Fuertes)

Scientists believe that these periodic irruptions are related to the abundance of the owls’ food supplies (prey animals, mostly lemmings and voles) in their breeding regions to the north. If prey is abundant during winter months, the owls will stay in the north; if there is a “crash” (decline) of prey during the winter, the birds, especially the younger ones, will spread out to the south. If food has been particularly plentiful during a breeding season, resulting in a large population of owls, they will also spread out more during the winter so there will be less competition for food in the northern areas.

I haven’t done enough reading to know what’s behind this winter’s irruption, but I can say that it is delighting birders across the northern U.S., particularly in the east. Several Snowy Owls have been spotted in Connecticut since mid-November, mostly along the shore, but I think I may have seen one inland several weeks ago, before any others had been reported in Connecticut.

It was in the first week of November, in the dark days following our big October snowstorm. I was driving through one of my favorite birding areas, a nice big farm, with some tilled land, lots of pasture, knolls, sloughs, and woods all around. Perfect habitat for grassland raptors (harriers are regulars here).

As I drove through the farm, I was doing my usual acrobatic act of driving straight down the road while swiveling my head to take in all the bird and animal activity across the fields. I did a double take when I saw a large white bird, with rather buoyant flight, flying low across a pasture, with several crows in pursuit. I was in a line of cars and could not slow down or pull over. A quarter mile down the road I skidded into a small pull-off, turned around and headed back to where I had seen the bird, but it was gone. I had seen it for perhaps two seconds, but I had gotten a really good look.

I’ve occasionally seen gulls in this area; the pasture abuts a large river, and there is a medium-sized reservoir and athletic fields a half mile to the north where the gulls sometimes gather. But this was not a gull; its head was too large, the wings too full and rounded, and its flight too erratic, to be a gull.

I had seen an osprey, a large, mostly white raptor, a mile in the other direction just ten minutes earlier. But this was not an osprey, a bird I know well; its wings were too wide, and its head too large and too white. And I would not expect to see an osprey flying so low over a pasture.

My first thought on seeing the bird was “Snowy Owl!” but I dismissed that hope since no Snowy Owls had been reported yet in Connecticut, although there had been a few sightings in Maine in the week or so prior to my sighting.

But the day after I saw this white raptor, a Snowy Owl was reported in Connecticut, to the south of where my sighting occurred. And now, after reading about the many, many sightings all across New England, I just can’t shake the thought that I must have seen one, too.

Still, I hope that I can see one again, and for more than a few seconds, and not just in my dreams.

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