Search for a Snowy Owl {in Iowa}

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Coralee, June, & I traveled over a hundred miles north Tuesday morning to Howard County in order to locate a Snowy Owl. In Iowa. This is the second winter in a row that Snowy Owls have been on an irruptive streak in the upper Midwest, traveling far south of their arctic tundra homelands. The bulk of the sightings in our “area” have been along Lake Michigan in eastern WI.  We had been planning a trip to Wisconsin this month to visit family & to hopefully see a Snowy, but our schedule just hasn’t cooperated.  Thanks to the awesome email discussion list operated by the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union, I was aware there was one, possibly two, Snowy Owls making their presence known in northern Iowa since the New Year.  The listserv Monday night contained a fantastic description of where a confirmed Snowy had been spotted earlier in the day, so I told Coralee to be ready Tuesday morning. We were going to hit the road & hope for the best.

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Late Tuesday morning we arrived in Howard County & drove around a section of bare agricultural fields for about 45 minutes searching for the Snowy without any luck. Saw a lot of Horned Larks. We parked along the side of Iris Avenue on a ridge overlooking the exact field on which the owl was sighted yesterday and began to scan again. I noticed a car parked on the road perpendicular to ours (70th St) with someone sticking out the moon/sun roof with a pair of binoculars. They had to be birders. We slowly made our way down the road & off the ridge, all the while Coralee was scanning the field for the owl with her binoculars. Eventually we parked near the other car; the occupants motioned us to drive up, windows rolled down, & the kind birders (I swear, birders in Iowa are some of the nicest people anywhere) told us the owl was out in the field–between two dirt clods. We pulled off to the side of the road and started looking. Took about a minute to find. No words. It was just so cool.  In the photo above you can see one of the dirt clods & the Snowy on the far right.

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We are fairly confident that this Snowy is a juvenile male. Definitely a male. And not quite full grown due to the presence of some black barring on its back & chest. Adult males are almost or completely pure white. White as snow.  Females have a lot more barring all over.  He sat in the snow the entire time we watched him.  Constantly turning his head back and forth, sweeping the fields.  A Horned Lark landed very close to him, possibly three feet away; he watched the lark for awhile, but made no movement toward it.  He looked at our cars a lot.  I’d estimate he was about 30-40 yards out, south of 70th Street.  My “good” camera remains in limbo–needs a new battery, a new memory card, and the lenses need to be re-fitted.  Coralee was so.very.mad I did not take care of all that before we left.  I honestly did not think we would find the owl!  Oh me of little faith!

Snowy Owl in an agricultural field; Howard County, Iowa

Snowy Owl in an agricultural field; Howard County, Iowa

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And so Coralee was forced to resort to digiscoping photos, again.  The girl is getting really good at this.

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June was less than impressed after about 45 minutes of this crazy ‘birdwatching from cars’ that all her family members seem to enjoy so much.  It was time to go.  We needed to head back south anyway in order pick Merritt up from the bus on time.  Plus the weather went from magnificent….
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…to blizzard-like in under a minute. It was crazy!  Our owl disappeared behind sheets of blowing snow.
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Coralee was particularly proud of this photo she digiscoped, so I’ve used it in the post twice.  Coralee & I both added ‘Snowy Owl’ to our Life Lists today.  Someday June can, too, if she takes up birding (poor kid if she doesn’t–she’s been on so many trips already!).  If you are interested in finding a birding listserv in your state, click here.  Some of these links are dead (like the Iowa one), but I’m sure most are not.  We also saw a Northern Saw-whet Owl over the weekend in Iowa.  February is quickly becoming one of my favorite months.  For birding.  It’s been gosh darn COLD otherwise! 🙂

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12 thoughts on “Search for a Snowy Owl {in Iowa}

  1. How EXCITING, THRILLING and AMAZING Ruby! I read in our local paper this winter that Snowy Owl populations have exploded in our area in recent years, though I have yet to spot one myself this winter. I think I would have to do like you and go out driving around the farmer’s fields. I’m sure all your children will look back on these birding adventures with much fondness despite some protests at present. Have fun – stay warm! XO

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    • Thank you for your excitement, Leigh! I love it! I hope you are able to spot a Snowy in your neck of the woods soon. I’m sure your boys would find it equally amazing–Merritt was very sad he missed our trip. We’re hoping to take him this weekend to see a Saw-whet Owl and (((fingers crossed))) a Pileated Woodpecker we’ve heard about nearby. Warm thoughts your way, too! xx

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  2. Just such a cool post! We used to watch snowy owls in the fields behind my dad’s shop when I was a kid… Our entire area has become so urban that the populations have moved out. Your pictures are just so exciting… Made me feel like I was there. Thank you for that.

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    • Oh, that’s wonderful to hear, Yanic! I’m so glad my post was able to jog some good memories for you. I am so very thankful that my father & grandmother were birders when I was a kid & basically gave us no choice but to embrace it…I really didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I am extremely thankful now! Hope you spot another Snowy Owl someday. xx

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  3. Wow Ruby, quite a month indeed!! June looks far less impressed, however. Ha! Remember the snowy owl on the birdfeeder at the Stoddola house? It was awesome too! I remember how he could almost turn his entire head around. Good spot, and great field trip with two of your kiddos! Wish it would warm up a little for you….
    Hugs, Mom & Nana

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    • I totally did not recall this, but now that you mention it…I feel like I DO recall something about a Snowy Owl on that huge bird feeder out back…I’m going to have to talk to you & Dad about it–maybe this was my 2nd Snowy Owl sighting!

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    • I hope you find him, too! The group we were loosely birding with kept birding after we left & found a second Snowy Owl, a female that was almost pure white. Incredible! Earlier in the year, back in January, a local birder spotted another female Snowy with a lot of barring. I saw photos of it on ebird. Your chances seem good! Keep us posted what you & Gary find! There is a confirmed (by three separate birders on three separate days running now–today included) of a Varied Thrush, too, on 90th St.

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    • Iowa is definitely vast, yes, especially in the north central part…very open and empty…a perfect place for these owls! Thank you so much for your enthusiasm, Camilla, I so appreciate it! xx

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