The Search for a Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl Sightings from halfway through the huge irruption in 2013

The Snowy Owl normally lives in the Canadian Arctic, but on some years (for debated reasons) they will travel down in the United States during winter, in what is called an irruption. Some years they show up in Minnesota, some they don’t, and we have no permanent population. Last year they showed up in record numbers, and made the news. We never caught a glimpse of one though, so if they showed up again, it was our goal to try to see and photograph another one. As it turns out, this can take a long time.

When we heard they were showing up this year, I started watching this list of birding reports for any sightings. I never realized just how popular birding is; we managed to run into two different people both searching an area they were seen in, in the course of a half hour or so. Just on one of the first days we were searching, we saw what looked like one (and really I don’t think it could have been anything else) in a tree on the side of a highway, but by the time we could circle back around to it, it had vanished. A hawk had taken its place, likely scaring it off.

We kept at it for a few hours that day, searching all around the area. There had been several reports from here, in farm country near Monticello. Since the owls are from the tundra, they like open, snowy fields and hunt during the daytime as well. We had no luck, and in fact didn’t see any for several more days we got out on the weekend, spending hours scanning trees and fields. This last weekend, we were looking near Monticello again because of a report that one had been seen on farmers irrigation equipment.

We found some other neat birds like a Giant Woodpecker (unfortunately out of focus), a lot of snow geese, and this bird, identification pending:

Northern Shrike

Update: As it turns out, this bird was rather interesting on its own: a Northern Shrike! They also come from further North, and are predatory songbirds, some of the only songbirds that regularly prey on vertebrates.

But, it wasn’t looking like we would be seeing a Snowy Owl that day. We started working our way back home when I happened to catch something perched right one of those huge sprinklers, a while away. I couldn’t quite tell with binoculars, but it looked like an owl, so we quickly found a way around to the closer side of the field. As we were finding our way, and finding somewhere to park, I saw it take off and confirmed it was what we had been searching for.

We parked, and I got out and walked into the field a bit, following a low hill and line of trees, hoping not to be noticed. After a few more quiet minutes I saw him flying back low to the ground, beckoned my Mom over and we both saw him through binoculars while I snapped a few pictures. I am not too experienced with telephoto lenses and wildlife photography so they aren’t the best, but they do show him at least.


Out in this cold field of windswept snow, the owl looked right at home. It was a great environment to find him in and a rather likely environment, although they are oftentimes seen at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport too.

This was our first time birding, and I can see the allure although it does take a lot of dedication. We probably never would have found it without the help of those other birders posting their sightings. Our goal is accomplished for now, but we still reflexively scan the trees. I think I might make another post about Snowy Owls that is more informational, with all the tips I can scrounge up for finding them from people more experienced than I am.




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