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The Quest for the Snowy Owl

Snowy owls are one of the great birds of North America. If you’re Canadian, you are probably lucky enough to live in an area where snowy owls can be commonly seen, but if you’re in the U.S., like me, snowy owls only venture this far south of the Arctic on rare occasions.

This year appears to be one of those occasions and snowy owls have been traveling south from their typical cold, northern habitats in search of food. Scientists used to believe that snowy owls would head to the South during times of scarcity when food (small rodents and lemmings) were difficult to find in the North. In fact, we now know that snowy owls are spotted south of their typical habitat in winters with an abundance of food in the North. The bigger the lemming population, the more snowy owls survive to the winter. The increase in snowy owl populations mean that it’s difficult for the owls to find a territory to hunt in, so many of the younger owls move south looking for unclaimed territory.

This year in the U.S., snowy owls have been spotted as far south as Odessa, TX. I live in Chicago and had heard rumors about snowy owls hanging out on the lakefront. On one particularly mild Saturday I headed over to the lake with my camera on a quest to find and photograph a snowy owl.

Photo of concrete lakefront steps with graffiti showing a cat and the label "FISH" with the Chicago skyline in the background
Walking the lakefront in search of an owl but only finding a cat fish.

My snowy owl hunt started out really slow. I hiked near the lake, periodically stopping to examine nondescript white things in trees with my binoculars. All of said “white things” turned out to just be trash caught in the tree branches and not owls.  After two hours, the sun was setting and I hadn’t seen one owl, so I took a couple sunset photos and decided to call it a day.

Photo of a sunset over Lake Michigan with trees and birds in silhouette

Just before I got back to my car, I suddenly spotted a snowy owl flying over the lake. I followed it with my binoculars and then made my way over to the spot it had landed. When I got there, the snowy owl was just chilling by the side of the lake. I used an 80-200mm lens (the longest lens I own) in order to take photos of the owl from far enough away that I wouldn’t scare it.

Photo of a female snowy owl sitting on conccrete

The owl had landed in the perfect spot for photos, posing in front of the skyline as the setting sun bathed the scene in a golden, pink light. It was beautiful and I was able to get a bunch of photos of the owl. I was so excited by seeing the owl though, that I forgot to lower my ISO, resulting in some graininess to the photos. 

Photo of a snowy owl sitting in front of the Chicago Skyline
“I’m just a little owl in a big city” – Snowy Owl

Unfortunately, at some point as I was taking photos, I saw a family on bicycles moving towards the snowy owl. I waved my arms to let them know about the owl so they wouldn’t get too close to it, but they didn’t see me and got close enough to the owl to cause it to take flight.

photo of a snowy owl taking flight with the Sear's Tower in the background

If you live in an area of the U.S. where snowy owls are congregating this winter, I highly suggest going out to look for one. You can use eBird to find snowy owl sightings in your area. If you do happen to see a snowy owl though, make sure to give it its space. Flying takes a lot of the owl’s energy and can make its position known to birds who might harass it, so it’s important that you don’t cause it to take flight when it didn’t need to. Snowy owls truly are beautiful birds and you don’t want to miss your chance to see one this year.

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. She is @uajamie on Twitter and Instagram. If you like my work here at Skepchick & Mad Art Lab, consider sending me a little sumthin' in my TipJar: @uajamie

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