The Ghost of Hedwig

April 4, 2012 clifftop CliffNotes

Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography

The ghost of Hedwig, Harry Potter’s faithful friend, has arrived in Red Bud. The Snowy Owl is hanging around Pumpkin Blossom Hill, just east of town along Highway 154.

Dan Peck of Sparta was heading home Thursday afternoon (Jan. 26, 2012) when he noticed an unusual white owl-looking bird on a power pole. He called IDNR district wildlife biologist Brian Mahan to see if he knew what it could be. Brian alerted Carl and Pen DauBach, volunteers with Clifftop, a conservation organization and land trust active in Monroe, St. Clair and Randolph Counties. Fearing that sunset might prevent an accurate observation record, the DauBachs called Red Bud Master Naturalist and Clifftop volunteer Jim Gilpatrick. All converged on Blossom Hill at sunset to behold the region’s first Snowy Owl sighting in more than three decades. Early Friday morning, Clifftop board member and professional photographer Tom Rollins captured the very soul of the majestic visitor in this stunning image.

Snowy Owls live and breed along the Arctic Circle in the tundra of northernmost Canada. Every so often the owls disburse far from their normal winter range. These “irruption” events, Clifftop’s Carl DauBach said, are due to uncertain reasons, “perhaps an increase in owl numbers, or a decrease in available food sources, or a combination of these and other factors.”

Tom Rollins, Thomas Rollins Photography

While their winter range does extend into the northern U.S., every few winters, Snowy Owls move much further south. Usually single birds, such as the one in Randolph County, are seen.

This winter’s Snowy Owl irruption has been one for the history books. The sheer number birds and the wide range of sightings makes this irruption an amazing phenomenon. A dozen sightings have occurred in Illinois, 40 in Missouri, 90 in Kansas, and single Snowy even made its way to Hawaii. On Friday, another Snowy was found in Pulaski County at the southern tip of Illinois.

Previous Snowy Owl records for our part of Illinois have been few and far between: Union County in 1980 and Franklin County in 1975 and 1992.  And, curiously or coincidentally, a Snowy Owl stayed in downtown Red Bud for a couple of days in March 1976. The North County News edition of March 18, 1976, noted that the bird – described first as looking like as “one big pigeon,” — stayed in town for a full weekend.

Perhaps pigeons were what the 1976 owl was looking for, as Snowy Owls in residential areas often will hunt and feed on pigeons: active and agile hunters, and so maneuverable in flight skills, these owls can and do hunt birds. Their normal diet in their high Arctic home is 90 percent lemmings, members of the rodent family related to voles and muskrats. Unlike most owls, Snowy Owls often are active during the day, choosing a high perch to scan for potential prey, then quickly swooping down, talons extended, to catch a meal.

Carl DauBach noted that the Randolph County bird is an adult, probably a female, “Only the very oldest males have nearly pure white feathering and this bird shows some brown flecking on the feathers. A juvenile bird would have fairly heavy brown streaking and flecking mixed in with the white plumage,” he said. The inclusion of so many adult birds is yet another unusual factor in this year’s unusual irruption event.

Getting food is obviously on the mind of the Snowy near Red Bud as observers noted the bird’s foraging behavior. While visitors may admire the beauty and wonder at the rarity the welfare of this unusual visitor from the high north deserves respect, and Snowy Owls, like all birds, should not be disturbed, harassed, or forced into unnessary flight for any reason. “This bird is here because it’s hungry and needs to find food. It doesn’t need any human-created stress,” DauBach noted.

Hedwig would approve and, maybe, come back for yet another visit.

Clifftop, a local nonprofit organization, is focused on preserving and protecting area bluff lands. 

Versions of this article and excerpts from it appeared in the February 2 2012 edition of the North County News and in the February 8 2012 edition of the Republic-Times, and in the Spring 2012 edition of Illinois Audubon Magazine. Additional news coverage appeared in the February 5 2012 edition of the Belleville News-Democrat.

To read more about owls and view additional photographs, please see: Something to Hoot About: Owls.

To read about providing homes for Barn Owls and view additional photographs, please see: Barn Owls in Search of Homes.

owlsSnowy Owl in Southwestern Illinois

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