Friday, January 24, 2014

Snowy Owl Hunting

Though snowy owls seldom wander as far south as Minnesota—except to a few grain elevators in Duluth Harbor and the Sax-Zim Bog near Meadowlands—this winter they’ve been sighted in many places across the state and even down into Iowa and Illinois.

Why? Several explanations have been offered, but to me it seems obvious they like the cold. We’ve been having a frigid winter, with daily highs often below freezing and wind-chills sometimes 50 or 60 degrees below zero. Our governor, in his wisdom and compassion, has closed all the schools in the state three times already.

Even in average winters, birders arrive from Florida, Texas, and California and hire a birding guide in hope of adding the snowy owl to their life lists. I ought to have the gumption to spend at least a little time hunting one down now that they’ve been sighted in the immediate vicinity. And I do.

It was a gray morning, but the temperature had risen 35 degrees overnight to a relatively balmy 18 above zero. The house was no longer emitting large thumps as if the paper carrier had missed his mark by forty feet. 

Our first stop was the Mississippi River near the Franklin Avenue Bridge, where friends had seen two whitish owls flying overhead a few days ago. We clomped through the snow along the Mitchell Trail on the west side of the river, then descended to river’s edge on the east side and walked downstream to the railroad bridge. 

Blue jays, crows, and a single downy woodpecker.

From there we drove south on Highway 55 past Fort Snelling and Mendota, following the bend of the highway east at the oil refinery. A few miles later  we took a right turn (south again) onto Goodwill Avenue, past snow-covered fields and a large horse farm, to a bridge across the tiny Vermillion River. Quite a few snowy owls have been spotted near here according to online sources.

We saw nothing. We drove east on 180th street, crossing the river again, and probably spent thirty minutes overall combing the trees on both sides of the road. No owls. No hawks, even.

Then we paid the nearby village of Vermillion a visit. We’d never been there. It has a Catholic Church with an Austrian-looking spire, a prosperous farm implement dealership spread out across both sides of the road, and a German cafĂ© called The Stein House.

Heading north again, we made a brief stop at Schaar’s Bluff, where the view out across the bend in the distant Mississippi is fantastic, then made our descent into Hastings to eat lunch at the Onion Grille.

It took us an hour to get back home, during which time we listened to a Duke Ellington CD with songs such as “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues.”

I don’t have the blues, however. I didn’t really expect to see an owl. After all, Peter Matthiessen wrote a whole book about snow leopards, and he never saw one.

But what did get me down was when I took a closer look at the ebird map of where snowy owls have been sighted near Vermillion. It wasn’t on Goodwill Avenue but on Hogan Avenue, the next highway over. We were 500 yards from the hotspot when we turned back.

Of course, it’s possible to see the owls anywhere. And clicking on the observation records later, I didn’t see any sightings more recent than January 12. That’s two weeks ago.

It's snowing right now. And you never know. I might see a snowy owl in the backyard tonight.

In fact, any owl would do.

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