Sunday, March 11, 2012

Snowy owls

This winter Washington experienced a much larger influx of snowy owls than normal. These magnificent birds have been reported everywhere from wildlife refuges to city rooftops. Normally quite rare here, the word is these tundra-dwellers experienced a population explosion up north, followed by a population crash among their favorite prey animals: lemmings and voles.

In January, birders talked about seeing a pair of snowies at Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. I have been at the refuge frequently this winter and saw lots of other wonderful birds but no snowy owls.

I decided to take a trip over to the coast to visit an old friend and see if we could spot any snowy owls. A couple of weeks ago, local birding sites were showing reports that snowies were still hanging around Damon Point, a windswept spit of land about a quarter mile wide with Grays Harbor on one side and the Pacific on the other.

Hoping to see one or two, we talked to people returning from the point as we headed out. All said they saw two or three owls. We took the bay side trail and saw a few water birds but no raptors. We approached the tip and stopped for lunch. Over the grassy area between the two waterfronts, there were a few photographers taking up position. That's when we spotted two owls sitting on a log and two more beyond. Altogether, we saw seven snowies, all looking like they were ready for an afternoon snooze.

Unlike many owls, snowy owls are diurnal and hunt day and night. The owls we saw are youngsters. Adult male snowies are pure white. Females have some black. Juvenile males and females have quite a bit of black bar markings. They were all quite tolerant of human and even dog activity. They allowed people to get pretty close, maybe within 30 feet.

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