Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Another Snowy Winter?

Project SNOWstorm, a volunteer based organization established after the 2013 Snowy Owl irruption, is forecasting another south of the Canada-U.S. border for Winter 2017-2018.  Already owls have appeared in the Great Plains, Great Lakes and Northeastern regions, including several birds spotted here in Vermont.

Last week two birder friends and I drove to Randolph to see the Snowy Owl that has been hanging out at the Vermont Technical College campus since November 14.  It was easily located perched on a light post near the center of campus and seemed oblivious the students walking within spitting distance of its perch.  Note the small ear tufts clearly visible in the top and middle photos below.  This is the first Snowy Owl, that I have seen, showing ear tufts.  After checking species descriptions given in several field guides in my personal library, either no mention of small ear tufts is made or it is specifically noted that Snowy Owls lack ears tufts.  While the presence or absence of ear tufts is not by any stretch a critical field identification feature, these photos show that at least some individual Snowy Owls have "ears".

I have a vivid memory of my first (life) Snowy Owl seen November 10, 1974 on Star Island, one of nine Isles of Shoals located six miles off the New Hampshire and Maine coastlines.  The owl was perched atop the granite monument erected in 1914 to honor the Reverend John Tucke, who served the fishing community there from 1731 to 1771.  Over the pst four decades vegI cannot recall how many Snowy Owls I have seen (quite a few, surely), but each has been equally as impressive as my first.  That first sighting reminds me of a poem written by Celia Thaxter, a renown 19th century author and resident on Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of Shoals.  Her poem, The Great White Owl, from Poems (1872, 1st edition, Hurd and Houghton, New York) follows. 

He sat aloft on the rocky height, 
Snow-white above the snow, 
In the winter morning calm and bright, 
And I gazed at him, below. 

He faced the east, where the sunshine streamed 
On the singing, sparkling sea, 
And he blinked with his yellow eyes, that seemed 
All sightless and blank to be. 

The snowbirds swept in a whirling crowd 
About him gleefully, 
And piped and whistled sweet and loud, 
But never a plume stirred he. 

Singing they passed, and away they flew 
Through the brilliant atmosphere; 
Cloud-like he sat, with the living blue 
Of the sky behind him, clear. 

"Give you good-morrow, friend," I cried. 
He wheeled his large round head, 
Solemn and stately, from side to side, 
But never a word he said. 

"0 lonely creature, weird and white, 
Why are you sitting there, 
Like a glimmering ghost from the still midnight, 
In the beautiful morning air?" 

He spurned the rock with his talons strong, 
No human speech brooked he; 
Like a snowflake huge he sped along 
Swiftly and noiselessly. 

His wide, slow-waving wings so white, 
Heavy and soft did seem; 
Yet rapid as a dream his flight, 
And silent as a dream. 

And when a distant crag he gained, 
Bright-twinkling like a star, 
He shook his shining plumes, and deigned 
To watch me from afar. 

And once again, when the evening-red 
Burned dimly in the west, 
I saw him motionless, his head 
Bent forward on his breast. 

Dark and still, 'gainst the sunset sky 
Stood out his figure lone; 
Crowning the bleak rock far and high, 
By sad winds overblown. 

Did he dream of the ice-fields, stark and drear? 
Of his haunts on the Arctic shore? 
Or the downy brood in his nest last year 
On the coast of Labrador? 

Had he fluttered the Esquimaux huts among? 
How I wished he could speak to me! 
Had he sailed on the icebergs, rainbow-hung, 
In the open Polar Sea? 

Oh, many a tale he might have told 
Of marvelous sounds and sights, 
Where the world lies hopeless and dumb with cold, 
Through desolate days and nights. 

But with folded wings, while the darkness fell, 
He sat, nor spake, nor stirred; 
And charmed as if by a subtile spell, 
I mused on the wondrous Bird.

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