Ruth Miller on the joy of finding her dream species
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.
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