Ruth Miller

Ruth Miller on the joy of find­ing her dream species

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

Do you have a par­tic­u­lar bird that you re­ally, re­ally want to see? A bird that’s top of your most-wanted list? Do you pore over it in your bird books and drool over the pic­tures? Do you day­dream about it and imag­ine fi­nally see­ing it? Well, that was me with Snowy Owl. All owls are won­der­ful crea­tures, and I’ve been lucky enough to see plenty of ex­cit­ing owl species around the world, rang­ing from Cuban Pygmy Owl to Great Grey Owl in Fin­land, Pel’s Fishing Owl in Ghana and Marsh Owl in Morocco (to name just four).

But there was a big Snowy Owl-sized gap on my men­tal list of owls and I re­ally wanted to see one. I dreamed of how won­der­ful, cool and fresh that snowy white­ness would look, a haughty owl with a sense of oth­er­world­li­ness about it.

Snowy Owls are Arc­tic birds which oc­cur across sev­eral con­ti­nents. They gen­er­ally spend our North­ern Hemi­sphere sum­mer above 60° North and breed in the Arc­tic tun­dra of Alaska, Canada and Eura­sia, mov­ing fur­ther south in the win­ter. They are no­madic, how­ever, and will move where they can find prey, so, if food is par­tic­u­larly scarce, they will fly fur­ther south in search of their pre­ferred diet of lem­mings and other ro­dents. They are large owls, with a wing­span of up to 150cm (or nearly 5ft) and can con­sume up to 12 mice a day or around 1,600 lem­mings a year. In lean lem­ming years they may broaden their diet to in­clude hares, squir­rels, ducks, geese and even other owl species.

Chang­ing luck

Each year, we lead bird­watch­ing trips in Fin­land and Arc­tic Nor­way and I’ve crossed my fin­gers for the mir­a­cle of one of these spe­cial birds, and though we’ve seen our tar­get owl species on these trips, we’ve never co­in­cided with a Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owls do oc­ca­sion­ally oc­cur in Bri­tain and Ire­land. A pair bred in Shet­land in the 1960s and 1970s, and each year we get in­di­vid­u­als here, though usu­ally on re­mote Scot­tish is­lands or on the more ex­treme peaks of the Cairn­gorm Moun­tains. The year 2018 has been the ex­cep­tion to the rule though. One Snowy Owl was re­ported on the Isles of Scilly, while another par­tic­u­larly oblig­ing bird turned up on the north Nor­folk coast in March, un­usual for this Arc­tic bird to be so far south. It spent time on Titch­well and Snet­tisham RSPB reserves, be­fore mov­ing north into Lin­colnshire, al­low­ing plenty of lucky peo­ple to see it. And where was I? Away guid­ing bird­watch­ing trips en­joy­ing lots of great birds, but read­ing at long dis­tance about a spe­cial white owl. In April, a Snowy Owl was re­ported in Pem­brokeshire, and once again I was guid­ing else­where. So close and yet so far.

How­ever, in May my luck changed. We were guid­ing another Bird­watch­ing trip in Fin­land and Arc­tic Nor­way and en­joy­ing phe­nom­e­nal birds, with won­der­ful views of Short-eared, (Euro­pean) Pygmy, Teng­malm’s, Ural, Great Grey, and Hawk Owls. We’d had a heart-stop­ping mo­ment when we’d en­coun­tered a very pale rap­tor on the ground right be­side the road, caus­ing an emer­gency stop so we could all en­joy an in­cred­i­bly pale Gyr Fal­con. It was later iden­ti­fied from our pho­tos by renowned rap­tor-ex­pert Dick Fors­man as an Ice­landic-race bird. Could this trip get any bet­ter? Well, yes! We were driv­ing across the high fjells to­wards Båts­fjord, a lovely

tun­dra land­scape of white snow­fields and rocks, with frozen lakes of blue ice start­ing to melt with the on­set of spring. Sud­denly I caught sight of a huge white col­umn perched on a rock just feet away. “Snowy Owl!” I cried and again my part­ner and co-tour guide Alan made an emer­gency stop. It re­ally was. A huge, white, up­right owl, a hand­some fe­male with the del­i­cate dark edg­ing to her back and up­per wing feath­ers giv­ing a beau­ti­ful scal­lop­ing ef­fect, and the most pow­er­ful yel­low eyes bor­ing right into my heart.

Beau­ti­ful and ma­jes­tic

My most-wanted bird was only a few feet away and I had found her my­self! I couldn’t con­tain my ex­cite­ment as I squealed and gib­bered in­co­her­ently (the rest of the group in the minibus can vouch for this!) and for­got to breathe at this ex­hil­a­rat­ing en­counter. I dithered – binoc­u­lars, cam­era, binoc­u­lars, cam­era?

– but binoc­u­lars won as I just looked and looked, ab­sorb­ing ev­ery sin­gle de­tail of this spec­tac­u­lar crea­ture.

She was so beau­ti­ful, so ma­jes­tic, so per­fectly suited to her snowy habi­tat and so close. Luck­ily, one of our num­ber, Mike, had the pres­ence of mind to grab a quick photo of our Snowy Owl be­fore she took off and flew away across a frozen lake, cov­er­ing the ground rapidly on her huge wings be­fore she melted away into the white land­scape. No mat­ter, her im­age was burned into my mem­ory and I couldn’t stop smil­ing the rest of the day. So, imag­ine the thrill to re­turn to the same area the next day and again see a Snowy Owl, much fur­ther away this time, but stay­ing long enough for ev­ery­one in our group to en­joy pro­longed views through our tele­scopes. Close study showed it to be a dif­fer­ent bird, this time an im­ma­ture male. Can you be­lieve that? Two Snowy Owls within 24 hours! And great fun to be able to share these un­for­get­table mo­ments with our group, mak­ing the whole ex­pe­ri­ence even more ex­cit­ing.

Snow Owls must be like buses, noth­ing for ages and then they all come at once. Fast-for­ward to 15 June and would you be­lieve it, a Snowy Owl turns up right on our doorstep, on An­gle­sey. Of course, once again we’re busy guid­ing and un­able to look for it, but this time I’m happy for my friends en­joy­ing the bird. Noth­ing can come close to the thrill of find­ing my very own most-wanted bird and I will never for­get my gor­geous Snowy Owl.

My most-wanted bird was only a few feet away and I had found her my­self! I couldn’t con­tain my ex­cite­ment

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