Sunday, March 18, 2018

Winter Farewell—Snowy Owls

It's the time of year when we get excited about the return of the robins. I saw one the other day down by the railroad tracks that cross through Theodore Wirth Golf Course. Robins tend to hang out there all winter ... but I hadn't seen one for months. And hearing that cheerful cluck as he flew overhead was a treat.

Winter birding is mostly occupied with a few species—woodpeckers, goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, juncos, blue jays. There is usually one time during the winter, after or during a heavy snowfall, when the cardinals appear at the feeder en masse. During one such mid-afternoon storm in mid-January, I counted nine cardinals in the tree just beyond the deck.

A pileated woodpecker pays us a visit at least once every winter. Sometimes once a week.

The winter season is made more interesting by the arrival in northern Minnesota of arctic species, and this year some of them made their way farther south than usual. I saw my first-ever Bohemian waxwing on Park Point in Duluth in January, and during a visit with friends a few weeks ago to Itasca State Park, we walked right past a black-backed woodpecker who, heedless of the intrusion, continued to pound away at the bark of a sturdy red pine.

I was hardly less smitten by an abandoned nest we passed hanging from a fork in a branch only a few feet off the ground. Maybe a red-eyed vireo?

Ducks are now passing through town, looking for open water. Hilary and I went down to the Bass Pounds a few days ago to find large numbers of common mergansers—one of our most majestic birds—and also quite a few hooded mergansers, which are among the most beautiful, along with five or six scaup. We spotted a kingfisher buzzing from one pond to the nest—a true spring sighting. And several robins were clucking around, too.

We talked to the only other birder down there, and he asked us if we'd been to the airport to see the snowy owls.

"We went there yesterday," I replied, "but saw nothing except airplanes."

"Well, there were three of them there again this morning."

"Maybe we arrived too late," I said. (Maybe we just weren't trying hard enough, I thought.)

This morning as I stepped out to get the newspaper, the air was calm and the sunrise was stunning. Hey! It was still early. And Sunday morning might be the best time of the week to visit the airport without worrying about the traffic.

So we got in the car and headed for the airplane viewing lot on Cargo Road. Twenty minutes later we were standing on a picnic table, looking across a few runways at a snowy owl sitting on top of a flat-roofed building. Wow.

A man at the far end of the lot had pointed out the bird to us, though we would have spotted it before long. "I've seen three of them this morning. There's one over by gate 5, and another by that yellow pole—see it, in front of that red truck?" (It was the same man we'd seen at the Bass Ponds the previous day.)

In the photos here the owls look like gray lumps, but through the binoculars they were much more distinct. They preened themselves and swiveled their heads from side to side. One of them eventually took to the air and flew right past us like a fuzzy white barrel with wings, on his way to a nearby rooftop, where he landed on a railing but soon disappeared beyond the lip of the roof.
Astounding birds. Huge. Inscrutable. Nomadic. And their view of the airport runways is unique.

On our way back into town, we exited the freeway at Diamond Lake Road, looking for a bakery. We were headed for Patisserie 46 but pulled in at Sun Street Breads at 48th and Nicollet. It smelled like Paris inside, and it's always a delight to see people out and about on a Sunday morning—savvy South Minneapolis people, who perhaps meet their friends here every week! 


Jim Guarnera said...

John, it must be spring. My wife and I were about to come up our driveway yesterday afternoon after an afternoon walk with the dog when I noticed out of the corner of mr eye something swooping down and then felt it....a 2 point landing on my head of a fairly large bird. I didn't react. I slowly turned to look at my wife, whose mouth was open and eyes were wide. A homing pigeon had determined I was a kindred spirit and landed on me. Fortunately the pigeon was banded with a phone number, and I called the owner. He immediately broke into sobs explaining that his pigeon had been spooked during their Wednesday morning walk and had taken off for quieter confines. He was not optimistic for a reunion, as the pigeon is fully domesticated and had never been in the wild. The gentleman lives about 5 miles away, and was soon reunited with his feathered friend.

Wannebeblogger said...

I tried to picture the snowy owl when Hilary told me about seeing them. No need to imagine it now. Wow. And then there are those cardinals. 9 of them this time. Love that view out your window. Inspiring.