I was minding my own business and successfully avoiding any semblance to work when my email chimed: to Ronnie Blackwell : OWL: I read the tag. That perked me quite a bit. Owls have been hard to come by in my neighborhood lately. I opened the email and fell into another world. The message was from Lea Saucier.
Ronnie - I Hope you are able to enlighten me as to what owl I saw Sunday night - flying about four feet above and across a rural highway. We were driving extra slow because of the weather, so I got a good look at the bird. It was a very white owl with very few and very faint markings on its chest. I've looked at barred owls photos and he doesn't quite match; however, the pictures of the male snowy owl seem to fit what I saw. Could this have been a snowy owl? Thanks for your insight. I always enjoy reading your Sunday column in the Sun Herald. Thanks, Lea.
Whoa! That got my attention! The Snowy Owl is MY Bird. Now before I continue, I must explain the birding term MY Bird. This is a vague term even in birding circles. For some it simply denotes their favorite bird. But serious birders save the term for birds that they can expect to find at a given birding area such as Dauphin Island. And for some birders MY Bird means the last bird that they can expect to find in North America.
It is a fairly open secret that I'm not an expert birder, but I have been lucky to hang out with incredibly talented and dedicated birders. I haven't bagged every species on the continent, but I'm close.
There are some Island birds that I have missed. And the American Birding Association stays busy finding new birds inside of the boundary limits of our prescribed field of battle. And those pesky ornithologists are continually revising the lists of birds, splitting some (generally applauded by birders) and consolidating closely-related species (Almost universally condemned by anyone who isn't a scientist. So it goes!
But the Snowy Owl is MY Bird! And it has been for half my life! I've gone to Canada, Alaska, and every Northern State with snow looking for the bird. I stood on a platform at Reagan Airport for hours in howling icy weather until I could no longer feel my legs. The Reagan bird had been hanging around for two weeks at the airport. Dozens of people saw that owl. A group of stalwart friends and family sat in the car outside next to the parking structure and toasted me with steaming drinks. --I was not amused. And I could tell you another dozen excruciating failed attempts.
But it would take a liberal amount of Ocean Springs Crooked Letter Brewing's Mystery Romp to get me through the bitter tale.
After I had calmed down a bit. I answered Lea. I told her that it was indeed possible that a Snowy Owl could be flying along a rural road in South Mississippi. Yes, Snowy Owls are Arctic denizens. But Snowy Owls have diet but limited diet.
In the Arctic They may eat a mouse, or a bird, or even scavenge around a large predator's kill. But the Snowy's bread and butter is a good helping of lemming. When lemmings are available Snowy Owls eat from five to ten a day. But when the lemmings eat themselves out of house and home as lemmings do about every four years, the Snowy Owls head South, looking for suitable lemming substitutes.
And that's how Snowy Owls end up on the Beaches of Florida or on a dune anywhere between the tropics and the Arctic.
I sent Lea pictures of a Barn Owl and a Snowy and a Snowy. I was disappointed by Lea's reply.
Thanks for your quick reply about the owl. The snowy owl photo you forwarded is definitely not what I saw for it has too many dark markings. The very white barn owl photo is more like it and you say it appears pale in the moonlight.
However, this was a misty rainy night and he was fully illuminated by the truck lights. I would say it was a large owl, but I'm unsure of the size of this bird for its wings weren't fully extended as he was struggling (pumping his bent wings up and down) to cross the highway before we hit him, and he was low to the asphalt. I was unable to see his eyes. He appeared bulky inasmuch as he had a large amount of downy feathers.
He was carrying no prey. He came out of a semi-wooded area by an are close to large hayfields. What stands out in my memory was the whiteness and the bulkiness of the owl. He was breathtaking!
Back to the drawing board! I was stymied. I thought of the possibility of an albino Great Horned Owl. I suppose that any bird could be an albino. But I could not find any mention of albino Great Horned Owls in the literature.Then I realized that the Snowy Owl Picture that I had send Lea was heavily marked with black.
Back to the drawing Board! I looked back over our correspondence and then it hit me!
I wrote back, Lea, after reading your description of your owl, as an especially the large broad bird. I believe that your bird was indeed a Snowy. I should have told you that the Snowy in my message was in summer plumage. This time of year the bird would might have a few black flecks, but it would look like almost pure white as a young bird.
Two of our Pine Woods Audubon members,Theresa and Kelly are already in Florida looking for Snowy Owls. Some of these winter guests must fly over us unseen during invasion years. Does this whiter bird look like your owl?