All my naturalist senses were cranked up as I walked along the dark gray sand. How quickly could I recognize my quarry? Would I be able to sneak up on it quietly enough to get a few quick, good-enough pictures without disturbing it?
I had heard that it tended to rest on beach logs that were about the same color as it was, so I scanned each log carefully for a pair of eyes that seemed to be looking out at me from the wood itself.
Hoping for a wider field of view, I climbed to the crest of the spit. The stiff ocean breeze whipped my face; my eyes teared up so I couldn’t see. Hastily wiping them, I finally spotted my object.
Which actually wasn’t that hard, considering the Snowy Owl was glowing white against a field of orange grasses, at the center of a respectfully-wide circle of lenses the diameter of my head pointed directly at him. So much for sneaky naturalist skills. And my 400mm Nikon zoom started looking pretty puny in this gathering of Big Optics.
Birders around here, and from a fair bit away, are going nuts taking pictures of the exquisite Snowy Owls who’ve treated us to a rare winter visit. Although it’s not too uncommon to see them in winter in the US Northeast, an irruption here in the Pacific Northwest makes even us non-twitcher backyard birders leap into our cars to head to their latest gathering spots.
[Graphic from Blix 2005]
For the past couple of months, I had been in awe of the stunning images of this photogenic bird that were making the rounds on Tweeters (our local birders’ email list) and the local news outlets. Glowing yellow eyes, soft white feathers, beautiful postures evocatively set against picturesque backgrounds. As a devoted but amateur photographer, I could only imagine the skills that had led to these astounding photos.
Then I got to owl country and found that these birds’ habits, along with their beauty and that of the setting, mean that you basically just walk up to one (of course staying a careful few tens of yards away), point your camera, click, and there’s your gorgeous photo. They tend to stay around human-eye level, remain awake during the day, and turn their heads frequently from side to side so that everyone around gets a good profile view at some point. (I developed a magical ability to tell where the owl was looking even with my eyes closed…with the help of the sudden clickety-clickety-clicking emanating from the sector of circled photographers she happened to face at any given moment.)
So what can we learn from these observations about how surprisingly easy it is to photograph Snowy Owls, and what those resulting photos show? What can we learn about the home to which they’ve adapted over millennia?
Lots, as it turns out. Take the fact that they tend to hang out at lens level, which we experience as unusual.
Yes, of course many of our native birds show up a few feet off the ground, but they don’t tend to just stay there; they spend a few moments foraging and then off they go into a nearby tree, or perhaps under a shrub.
But in the Snowy Owls’ Arctic home, there are no trees. So the owls aren’t used to high places, and don’t tend to hang out in them. At least at first; apparently once they’ve been here a while, they start to experiment with this new vertical notion, eventually getting to actual trees.
What about this way the Snowies have of looking around all the time, and doing it when humans tend to be awake? Almost always when I go to visit my neighborhood Barred Owls on my late-morning walks, they’re peacefully snoozing the day away on a high branch under the cover of an overhanging pine. They start coming alive at dusk. So what’s different about a Snowy Owl’s home from ours?
Night. During the Arctic summer, there isn’t any.
So if you’re going to make a living up there, you’d better be good at hunting during the day, scanning your turf so you’ll catch that lemming in motion.
What else can we learn about the home of these ethereal, exotic creatures from an encounter chez nous? Now I’m developing more questions than answers. Take a look at this profile:
No wonder I kept worrying that my photos seemed out of focus: the owl’s face is softened by the short feathers, in contrast to my local Barred Owl’s, which even with this young owl’s baby fluffiness, has a flatter overall configuration and lots more open space around his eyes:
Does the Snowy Owl’s downy covering shield his face from the Arctic cold, perhaps?
And I’m betting those evocatively lidded eyes on our Snowy help protect his eyes from what must be pretty glaring sun bouncing off the northern snow and ice.
Thickly padded feet? Really cold stuff to stand on!
Learning a new landguage, remembering the old
Learning to “read” the ecology of the Snowy Owl’s home from his characteristics and behavior opens a world of stories to us. Can we learn to read our own features and ways of encountering the world to discern something about our proper home? If you were a creature touring a far-distant place, what could a local naturalist learn about your home from observing you?
I also wonder whether it’s possible to learn to read ourselves to figure out where we truly belong, where our home really is. I grew up in East Coast megalopolis suburbs and spent most summers in rural Connecticut. Is that obvious? My original “language of landscape” involves syntax of spotted newt, vocabulary of spring peeper, grammar of metamorphic rocks, dialect of old rolling hills. How did my mother (nature) tongue shape me, as the Snowy Owl’s ancestral land shaped her?
It took me lots of intense self-instruction to learn the new “land-guage” out here in Seattle: craggy mountains on both sides, baby glacial sediments, assortments of landforms I couldn’t easily translate. I’m pretty fluent at reading this new language now, after 25 years. But sometimes it’s nice to return to my ancestral land and relax into the Old Speech, read the old volumes I love so much.
The Snowy Owls will return home soon; they don’t usually hang around here past mid-March on those rare occasions when they do visit us. They’ll blend in and find their familiar hunting grounds, and perhaps raise a few chicks to carry on the traditions. I wonder if this strange land of trees and summer nights and circles of clicking optics will show up in their dreams.
 Arctic animals and their adaptations to life on the edge. Arnoldus Schytte Blix. Tapir Academic Press, 2005.
 Yes, yes, I know: gorgeous doesn’t mean either perfect or artistically stunning, and just going “click” doesn’t make you an exceptional photographer! There’s that rare owl look-in-the-eye—that moment of purely astounding light—that glimpse of glory through the everyday—that separate the truly gifted and skilled photographers from the rest of us. But those owls set that bar quite a bit higher than it had been.