Stories: Snowy Owl, The Arctic Ghost

Snowy Owl, The Arctic Ghost

Paul Bannick
Paul Bannick is a Seattle, USA based international award-winning wildlife photographer specializing in the natural history of North America with a focus on birds and their habitats. Coupling his love of the outdoors with his skill as a photographer, he creates images 34 that foster intimacy between 35 viewer and subject, inspiring education and conservation. Paul is the author and photographer of the highly acclaimed book, “The Owl and the Woodpecker” and his second book “Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls”, is out now. His work can be found in hundreds of books in the USA and Europe.

Paul is also an accomplished public speaker on topics related to wildlife, birds, habitat and conservation. Currently, he serves as the Director of Major Gifts for Conservation Northwest, an organization dedicated to protecting and connecting wild areas from the Paci c Coast to the Canadian Rockies for the bene t of wildlife.

Snowy Owl, The Arctic Ghost 

They arrive unexpectedly in the black of night on milky-white wings from places far beyond the reach of men.

During some winters, on no predictable schedule, Snowy Owls move from breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra, including Russia, Greenland, Norway, Canada, and Alaska. Some remain in the Arctic, hunting birds in openings in the ice at sea. Snowy Owls might move in any direction. The Russian Snowy Owls, for instance, might 36 hunt in Alaska and remain, while others might return home. Some Snowy Owls migrate south into treeless landscapes that super cially resemble the Arctic tundra, and others irrupt in great numbers south into countries like China, northern Europe, central Russia, southern Canada and the northern United States. It is during these irruptions that most people see and photograph Snowy Owls in Asia, Europe and North America.

While it used to be assumed that birds moving south in mass were starving birds unable to handle the Arctic winter, we now know the opposite is true. These “irruptions” or “explosions” of birds occur when an abnormally high number of young are produced which, in turn, is related to a spike in the supply of a small rodent, the lemming, their favored food.
Throughout the Snowy Owl’s worldwide range, courtship and breeding are irregular and risky. The Arctic tundra is a harsh climate and all of the prey animals experience booms (high levels) and busts (collapses) in their numbers in response to the numbers of their prey. Snowy Owl nesting success is dependent on the population of lemmings. Lemming populations are believed to have natural cycles, although these do not occur predictably. They are prone to spike or plummet between years or even within the year making the raising of young Snowy Owls a risky proposition.

During a nesting season, a female Snowy Owl will exhaust all of her energy producing eggs, defending a nest and keeping the eggs and young warm. She must be certain that this will be a pro table proposition before she commits to mating which she does not do every year. 37 Males compete for the best territories with the most food in order to win the attention and ultimately a breeding commitment from a female. Males often stay in the Arctic year-round to guard the best territories while females may roam the Arctic, even between continents during the summer, and travel out to sea or southward in the winters.

By late April or early May, most males are on territories or  ghting for territories, advertising their presence with deep fog- horn like hooting calls. This impressive call advertises their health and strength to competing males and might get the attention of females passing through. The call might be enough to make another male keep its distance but will not be enough to convince a female to mate. To improve their chances, the males are usually hunting for lemmings when not calling. These spoils are often at their feet when they call and in their bills as their display.

Male Snowy Owls call from prominent perches. When they want to impress a female, they will pick up a lemming with their bill and swing it back and forth as they rotate their body in a circle, giving them the best chance of attracting a female. If they receive no response, they will take fight, lemming in bill and course across the landscape with exaggerated deep wing- beats meant to reflect sun off the nearly pure white surfaces of their wings. The male may then hold his wings straight up and spread his tail feathers so that he glides straight down in the breeze to the ground, where he continues to display.

If a female accepts his invitation, after mating, she will continue laying eggs as long as he continues delivering lemmings. The continued food supply keeps her healthy and gives her a better sense that her efforts will be pro table. Female Snowy Owls lay between one to fourteen eggs during the years they do breed. Even during the best lemming years not all of the young will survive and during most years the majority of Snowy Owls fail to breed. During particularly good lemming years, many Snowy Owls will have successful nests and the number of young will be exponentially larger than a normal year.

When the lemmings continue to decline, many of these youngsters will have to successfully compete with adult birds for the limited food supply during the harshest months, or they must  y south. Treed landscapes, inhospitable to Snowy Owls, are normally found south of the Arctic tundra. Young birds dispersing south might first encounter the lightly treed muskeg, followed by the more timbered taiga, then hundreds of miles of dense coniferous forests. Snowy Owls are birds of the open country and will seek habitat that allows them to use their phenomenal eyesight and strong flight skills. This brings them, often for the first time in their lives, into the inhabited temperate landscapes of Asia, Russia, Scandinavia, northern Europe, the southern provinces of Canada and the northern United States.

During these times, they are found most often on farmlands and on marine and lake shorelines where snow-covered, treeless landscapes look like the Arctic tundra. Usually these places are very near small towns and large cities. Ironically, you have a better chance of seeing Snowy Owls in a city during an irruption year than you would in the Arctic tundra during a very successful nesting season.

Most of the Snowy Owls that visit temperate areas during the winter are juveniles, although some females and fewer males will sometimes show up. Male Snowy Owls are almost pure white with very few dark brown or black spots on their wings while mature females are mostly white with more barring on most of their body except their faces, which is always white. Juveniles are very difficult to distinguish from females, although there is no shortage of people who will erroneously insist they can do so. That said, if you see them side-by-side, a much larger Snowy Owl is more likely to be a female. Snowy Owls are one of the largest owls in the world by bulk, with females up to 60 cm (23.5 inches) long, with a wingspan of up to 155 cm (61 inches) and a weight of up to 2,951 grams (6.5 pounds)!

Although the best photos of Snowy Owls are those taken during the day, this has more to do with the limitations of night photography and the ease of  funding owls in the light than of their natural behavior. Like most owls, Snowy Owls are primarily active at night when they do most of their hunting. Snowy Owls are shy, suspicious birds that do not normally let humans approach closely. The fact that their vision allows them to spot a lemming from two kilometers away means that they have no problem avoiding people wishing to capture a photograph.
Interestingly, breeding, migratory, and irruptive birds behave very differently as does each individual bird. Breeding birds are not only extremely difficult to find but will not normally allow you to approach closer than a mile. They will often slip o  the nest before you spot them,  flying low behind their nest mound to avoid detection.

Migratory birds follow annual patterns to wintering areas south of where they nest and are usually extremely territorial, defending an area of several kilometers from rivals. These owls, too, are often skittish, although there are exceptions with individual birds. Irruptive birds are often young and some do not know to be afraid of humans, particularly if they are near other irruptive birds and have become acclimated to the presence of humans. The best chance for capturing a photographic image of this beautiful owl is to hire a photography guide who is familiar with the personalities and inclinations of individual birds. This will make the best use of your time, particularly if you are traveling to find and photograph them.

Photographing Snowy Owls presents a number of challenges. First, a bird allowing a close approach must be found. A close approach means that one-quarter to one-half of the frame might be filled while using a 600mm lens and a 1.4 extender (teleconverter). Since Snowy Owls are most active at night, arrive at night and setup to photograph them as the day brightens to beautiful morning light.

The best way to get close is to observe the owl at a distance, notice the perches it uses, pre-focus the lens on one of these alternate perches and wait for the owl to return.

Waiting for the owl offers the best chance of getting natural photos of it flying towards you or with talons and wings out just before landing. If you or your guide have done your homework you can wait at an alternate perch with the most pleasing background and the bird front-lit.

Snowy Owls are a white bird which presents exposure compensation challenges. If you photograph a Snowy Owl against a dark background, you will often need to take away light, and if the owl is against the light background you will need to add light. The amount of light added or subtracted will depend upon the size of the bird in the frame and the tonal differences between the owl and its background.

Snowy Owls are among the most attractive birds in the world, but they live in one of the most sensitive and vulnerable habitats. The Arctic tundra is a treeless landscape of grasses, sedges and other low-growing plants on a living layer of soil sitting upon permafrost, a sheet of ice that retains moisture and discourages the growth of trees. Climate change is melting the permafrost, causing the tundra to become drier and replace grass with trees. Altering this habitat will be to the detriment of all tundra animals including Snowy Owls, Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes and Muskox.

During the winter, Snowy Owls are reliant upon our respect. We need to give them space to maintain populations of juveniles that will return to the Arctic and become the breeding Snowy Owls that will enchant us for generations.

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