Some of you might think this a little crazy.
On Jan. 28, at 4:45 a.m., my son-in-law, John Carter, and I abandoned the warm comfort of our Centre County homes to drive to Le Raysville, in Bradford County. We made the more than 300-mile round trip to hopefully see and photograph a snowy owl — the only confirmed sighting of one in Pennsylvania this winter.
I said “hopefully,” because there are no guarantees with hunting, fishing or birding.
With their piercing yellow eyes atop mottled white plumage, 4 1/2- to 6-foot wingspan and 20- to 27-inch head-to-tail measurement, snowy owls are quite impressive birds. As with most raptors, females are the larger of the two sexes.
Snowy owls live in the tundra in northern Canada and feed on lemmings and voles. Every winter, a few of the large white owls venture south. This year, there is one, and only one, snowy owl confirmed in Pennsylvania. Some winters, there might be four or five, and sometimes none.
During the winter of 2013-14, a major eruption of snowy owls occurred into the lower 48 states. Birders spotted them across Pennsylvania that winter, including Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Pymatuning, Williamsport and Loganton. One spent quite a bit of time on the Northumberland/Montour County line just north of I-80. In Centre County, snowy owls were observed in Tusseyville and Woodward Gap, and one was trapped at the University Park Airport. That winter, snowy owls flew all the way south to the Carolinas and even northern Florida.
Just before 8 a.m., we arrived at Davis Road, south of Le Raysville. Almost immediately, we spotted two red-tailed hawks, then the large white owl perched majestically on top of a utility pole.
This is rolling-hill farm country. From its perch about 150 yards from the road, the owl surveyed a grass-covered valley behind the barn on the Davisland Farm.
We met Kevin Raymond, a local fish taxidermist, who first spotted the owl on Jan. 2. Raymond filled us in on the latest happenings. Although fighting a bad case of Lyme disease, he has spent over 85 hours watching, photographing and helping others enjoy the bird.
Raymond related that Pennsylvania naturalist and author Scott Weidensaul, along with a crew from Project SNOWstorm, had trapped and banded the owl the evening before. They were hoping to fit it with a backpack transmitter to track the snowy owl’s movements. However, the young male was just a tad too small to safely carry the 40-gram transmitter.
Raymond was concerned. He had arrived at 6:50 the morning that we visited, just to make sure the owl was still there. Up until the trapping, the owl’s behavior was unusual because it had stayed in such a small area, evidently finding ample food.
“I told so many about the owl, and people from all over said that they were coming today,” Raymond told us. “I was worried that it wouldn’t be here after being trapped last evening.”
The weather tested our perseverance that morning — nasty and cold, with a brisk wind pushing snow flurries across the open fields. The wind chill factor made it feel as if it were well down in the teens, maybe even single digits. As the hours passed, conditions deteriorated, with the flurries turning into a serious snow squall.
Despite that, just as Raymond had predicted, people began to show up. Even with the inclement weather, vehicles kept arriving with more people pulling off to the side of the country road to watch the snowy owl. A few, including a man in an Amish buggy, were local, but most had traveled quite a distance just for the chance to see this rare feathered visitor from the far north. Just that morning alone, people came from New York, Maryland, New Jersey and points in Pennsylvania as far away as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
At one point, I imagine that close to $100,000 worth of camera equipment, binoculars and spotting scopes lined the roadside, all pointed at the owl.
While keeping an eye on the owl, we talked with other birders for nearly three hours. Raymond had clued me in on a spot where the owl often landed closer to the road. I spent much of my time stationed there, while John joined the other photographers near the barn.
The owl only flew from his perch twice while we were watching. Both times, it glided to a position in the grassy ravine, but stayed far away from where I was positioned.
I was thrilled to see the owl, but with the distance and blowing snow, my camera equipment could not do justice to the situation. Fortunately, Raymond supplied the beautiful photographs to accompany this column.
The snowy owl has been catching voles on the Davis farm for just over a month now. Given the moniker “Davisland” by Weidensaul, this owl has turned into a real celebrity. Birders continued to travel to the area all last week, some driving four, five and even six hours to get there.
On Jan. 27, “Davisland” was attracted to pigeons in a trap of ancient design: a bal-chatri trap — a large, domed cage with loops of monofilament around the outside. The owl was caught when his foot became harmlessly entangled in one of the loops. Weidensaul described the Le Raysville owl as being in good shape.
It was well after dark when the SNOWstorm crew finished processing “Davisland” — the young Bradford County male owl. Weidensaul, a more poetic writer than I, described the release.
“Mary Edith and I gave the bird a gentle toss, and he flew silently across the fields, huge wings rowing against the twilight.”
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com
In 2015, ornithologist Margaret Brittingham invited Weidensaul to speak on the Penn State campus. Weidensaul explained Project SNOWstorm, for which he is a co-founder, to the interested audience at the Forest Resources Building.
In a nutshell, SNOWstorm is a collaborative scientific effort designed to learn more about snowy owls and their infrequent visits south. Owls are live-trapped and, if they are heavy enough, fitted with backpack transmitters that record their GPS locations. When an owl is within range of a cell phone tower, it transmits thousands of points of data to the researchers. There are no cell towers in the tundra, however. This means that only owls returning south — for the second time — transmit data about their northern Canada activities.
SNOWstorm researchers have fitted two new owls with transmitters so far this winter: one in upstate New York and one in Maine. Three returning owls are being monitored, providing the researchers with invaluable data.