2017-01-11 / Today's Top Stories

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Seldom-seen snowy owl lands near LeRaysville


Review Correspondent

PIKE TOWNSHIP — Her Majesty is visiting LeRaysville.

No, she doesn’t wear a crown of jewels, or ride in a limo, or rule a nation. What she does wear is a tiny cap of feathers … soft, white and pure as a Christmas Eve snowflake. Riding? She rides on the breeze.

She rules a huge field hidden away near town, out in Pike Township, the field where she recently decided to land. And all those people staring at her and talking about her and snapping her picture … she rules their hearts.

“Her Majesty” is the name Diane Davis gave the owl that’s landed on her family’s property. And it’s not just any owl. It’s an owl perhaps never before seen in Bradford County — a snowy owl from the Arctic.

“But it’s really just amazing!” Diane says. She first saw it perched atop a tool shed across the road and thinks it’s remarkable the owl traveled this far and chose her farm.

Her mother, Mary Edith Davis, agrees: “I was quite impressed with how pretty they are.”

Lots of folks are excited. Since word got out about the rare appearance, birdwatching photographers and other visitors have flocked, one could say, to the country road by their house to see the owl.

“This one doesn’t seem to mind people,” notes Brennan Coates, Mary Edith’s great-nephew from just down the road. Sometimes the owl perches on buildings or objects near one of the houses; sometimes it sits in a big field. Brennan awoke one morning to see it on his log pile. Looking through his garage door, he was only about 50 feet from it.

She appears

Kevin Raymond needed to have his tires rotated.

So, on Jan. 2, he headed for a garage. An avid birdwatcher, he took the back roads.

Scanning yellow winter pastures, the Stevensville resident hoped he’d find short-eared owls. He came to the large, sprawling Davis fields. Slow down, stop, move on … he drove the drive of a bird-man.

Then suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw it — a bird flying from a tree right in front of him.

“And it was the snowy owl! …

“I couldn’t breathe!” Kevin says with a laugh.

Land! Land! Land! he thought. It did, only about 30-35 yards away. He stopped and tried to get cell-phone pictures out of the passenger window. That didn’t work too well, so he turned off the ignition, climbed out and stood by the hood. There, he clicked eight to 10 photos.

Soon after, Brennan was driving past a cemetery between the houses. He saw Her Majesty in a maple tree.

“Just another owl,” he thought and kept going. But soon he learned it was NOT just another owl.

In the meantime, Kevin, a member of “Bradford County Birders,” had put a photo on Facebook and Internet site EBird. The spigot spun open. Bird-peepers all over, even from hours away, are flowing to the farm to glimpse and photograph the special owl. They’ve driven from Sayre, Williamsport, Tunkhannock, lower New York, Susquehanna County, Wellsboro, Sunbury … even someone from northern New Jersey, Brennan notes.

Diane’s seen about a dozen cars a day, seven or eight at a time. Some watchers stay all day.

According to EBird, Kevin says, “This snowy owl is the first recorded in Bradford County.”

Yes, it’s big news.

“I still get almost giddy talking about it!”

Meet Her Majesty

On a cold forenoon, Her Majesty holds court in the field. She sort of waddles around, a big white spot in a whole field of snowy white spots. She sits near a black silt sock. Her speckled back’s turned to the cameras. She cranks her head waaaay around to the left, almost 180 degrees. A yellow eye peeks over her wing. Then — she looks waaaay to the right, peeping with the other eye.

Human eyes and lenses watch her every move, because … well, she’s just special.

What’s a snowy owl?

Let’s talk owls.

If one is going to talk owls, they should talk with Scott Weidensaul of Schuylkill Haven, Pa. Scott is a natural history writer focusing on birds and migration and does field research specializing in owls. He’s seen photos of Her Majesty.

Snowy owls, he explains, live in the Arctic around the entire globe — places like extreme northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Norway and Greenland. They live alone, not in flocks. Scientists think the world population varies from 15,000 to 30,000. And like many birds and grandparents, they migrate south in winter.

Scott says Her Majesty is probably from the central Canadian Arctic.

For snowy owls, Pennsylvania and the northeastern United States is “south.” On this continent, one will see them mainly in the Great Lakes area over to New England and Long Island. They’ve also been sighted in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois and Iowa, besides Pennsylvania, Scott says. There have even been rare sightings in Jacksonville, Fla., and Bermuda.

Even in the Arctic, they’re highly nomadic.

“These owls are moving sometimes thousands of miles from place to place,” Scott says.

The Arctic lemming, a mouse-like animal, is the staple of their diet, and the owls go where they find the most. They breed successfully only when the lemming population is high. The more food, the more eggs.

And the more eggs, the more owls around later to migrate. So as the lemming population goes up or down, the number of snowy owls seen here in winter goes up and down.

Some, Scott notes, go even farther north and snatch ducks out of holes in the Arctic Ocean. Some don’t migrate at all.

“They’re incredibly adaptable,” Scott says.

In the winter of 2013-14, there were 400 snowy owls recorded in Pennsylvania. A large number like that is called an “eruption.”

“That happens … every three-to-five years,” Scott explains. Last year, there was “only a handful.”

This winter is seeing another eruption, he says, and one or two have also been reported in Erie County.

“It’s a big thing to see this bird this year.”

They do not “erupt” because of any recent climate change, Scott explains — snowy owls have migrated since at least the mid-1800s.

BUT … they are at risk because of climate change, Scott says. Warmer winters in some Arctic spots are producing wetter snow, not good for lemmings. That means the rodents’ population peaks less often, which affects the owls.

Because they’re nomadic, they’re hard to count.

“We don’t know whether their population is going up or down,” Scott admits. Though not endangered, they are considered at risk, and the Partners in Flight conservationist group has put the snowy owl on its watch list.

Snowy owls do not migrate to the same place every year. They enjoy spots that look like the tundra, which probably explains why Her Majesty landed in the big field. Also, they often migrate to airports. That, of course, can be dangerous for both owls and planes.

They have little fear of humans, Scott says, and don’t understand the dangers of cars, wires and so forth.

“They do get into trouble that way.”

Sometimes “they make bad choices,” he adds. “It’s a hard life to be a young bird,” especially a predator.

But, Scott thinks Her Majesty probably will be OK. Snowy owls can live in temperatures from 80 below zero to 80 above. She might spend the whole winter here. Or she might move on.

Actually, SHE could be a HE. Scott can’t tell. Snowy owls are solid muscle, with females reaching 5-6 pounds; males, 4-4 1/2. Their wingspan is an impressive 4 ½-5 feet, and they’re almost 2 feet long head to tail. Females tend to have more dark markings, but can vary, and older birds’ feathers get faded and dingy-looking.

“It’s a juvenile for sure,” Scott says.

“They’re pretty cool birds. … They’ll eat anything, dead or alive.” Voles, rabbits, shrews, birds, mice. He figures Her Majesty’s probably eating mice, as a gas pipeline recently was put across the field and covered with straw, offering prime mouse hunting.

“There’s a lot of mice here,” Brennan says. He’s heard pigeons, too. Her Majesty should eat well.

Another bird expert, Wayne Laubscher of Lock Haven, told the family a snowy owl can eat small ducks or small dogs and cats. It simply gulps down the whole thing — fur, feathers, the works — then vomits up what it can’t digest. Wayne even found pellets — chunks of undigested food.

“And the cat’s been sticking pretty close to the house,” Diane says of her calico, Pitty Pat. “We think she’s a little bit nervous!”

In the Arctic, snowy owls even pick at dead whales, and one seen in Delaware was munching a dead dolphin. They’ll eat other owls or even — No, say it isn’t so! — other SNOWY OWLS!

“It’s a rough world out there!” Scott declares.

The story is, a kestrel (small falcon) caught a vole and took it behind a building. Her Majesty saw it. She wanted it. She went behind the building. No one knows what happened back there … but soon Her Majesty re-appeared. She had the vole.

Project SNOWstorm

Scott is active with Project SNOWstorm, a volunteer, collaborative science project of 45 people studying the snowy owl. It includes researchers, banders, veterinarians and pathologists, some working for agencies and some in academics or free-lancers.

“It’s been a pretty cool example of collaborative science,” Scott says.

Members track snowy owls and show locations on Internet maps. If they find a dead one they do an autopsy to “try to get a sense of what the real dangers are.”

“And we’ve learned an amazing amount,” Scott says.

“We’re all like a bunch of kids!” he adds. They share a sense of wonder, discovery. They formed Project SNOWstorm during the recent big migration and now are gathering and publishing findings.

“It’s been an incredible privilege to work kind of hands-on with them,” he says. “This has been one of the most exciting things” he’s been involved with.

The birds are beautiful and charismatic, he remarks.

“Snowy owls are special.”

Project SNOWstorm gets all of its money from public donations. To learn more, or contribute, go to www.projectsnowstorm.org.

Hold it right there!

They all say the same thing: Stay back! Stay back! Stay back!

It’s fine to watch a snowy owl from a distance, as most of Her Majesty’s subjects do, but don’t try to get close. The bird will get stressed and possibly fly away.

Easier said than done.

“People are entranced by these things,” Scott says. But “the best things folks can do is watch respectfully from a distance.” If you come close and it flies, you were too close.

It doesn’t need food. It doesn’t need rescuing. It certainly doesn’t need harassment!

If it comes close on its own, though, don’t panic, Scott says. Just “quietly enjoy the experience.”

Can’t stop looking

And they are enjoying the experience.

Day after day, bird-loving photographers show up to see Her Majesty with cameras holding lenses the size of barn beams. Some stay hour after hour. Some come back more than once.

Jim Borden drove over from Springville, near Montrose, every day last week.

“I’m a photographer; I’m a birdwatcher, and a photographer,” he says. This is the 18th snowy owl he’s seen, but the closest to home. “I’ve driven as far as 10 hours one way,” to the Brunswick, Maine, airport, to see one.

They’re impressive and beautiful, he believes.

“They’re one of God’s wonders, how they get here.”

He stresses Scott’s point: Visitors “should stay in their cars, view it from a distance.” Don’t approach it, don’t call it, don’t bait it.

Dan Dunn drove down from Campville, N.Y., twice. On Sunday, during his second trip, he wore camouflage and toted a camo-camera.

“I think it’s a fantastic winter visitor!” he declared.

Fellow photographer and bird-lover Linda Stager has come out from Wellsboro twice. She’s impressed with the Davis family.

“You can tell they’re proud,” she says, and they’re doing a good job looking out for Her Majesty.

Last Wednesday, Linda stayed until sunset.

“There’s always something new and different,” she said. “You get so wrapped up in this owl’s well-being that you can’t stay away!”

She offers the same advice: Don’t go into the fields. Don’t distress the bird. Even hide, or use your car door as a blind. “You don’t want your silhouette to be seen. … Don’t go anywhere near that bird!”

Her motto?

“If I can get my pictures and the bird doesn’t move -- doesn’t move away from me – then I’ve done it right.”

Why does Linda like snowy owls?

“Look at those yellow eyes,” she said simply. “The snowy owl is, to me, the prettiest owl there is.”

And when one looks into your eyes — “it’s a magical moment!”

You’ve just seen an animal worthy of the name “Her Majesty.”

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