Snowy Owl seen near Clemons

T-R PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Last Tuesday, a call was received that a snowy owl was observed in rural northwest Marshall County. Sure enough, the big white bird was still at the scene sitting on top of a wooden fence post. That is exactly the situation this author could only hope for and my wish came true. Many photos were obtained to document the event. Biologists and ornithologists use the term 'irruption' for unusual arrivals of lots of birds into parts of the country where they are not normally found.

A SNOWY OWL (Bubo scandiacus) is this week’s featured creature. I feel lucky to be able to document its presence, make many full frame photographic images of it with the a 400 mm lens, and just enjoy seeing this big white raptor. My tip on where to find it came from local birding enthusiast Mark Proescholdt of Liscomb. He called me, told me where to look, and the rest is history. Enjoy today’s close up view of a big white owl, the snowy.

A check with DNR Wildlife Diversity Bird Biologist Bruce Ehresman was made. He told me of at least 50 sightings of Snowy Owls in Iowa so far in many regions of the state. There will most likely be more reports to come as the word get out among birders. Avid birders check various computer web sites daily to see a wide list of common birds, winter visitors and uncommon arrivals. The Snowy Owl fits the latter category.

Iowa has three large bodied resident owls; the Barred Owl, Great-horned Owl and Barn Owl. All are primarily nocturnal and do their hunting at night. As large owls go, the Snowy is the largest (by weight) in North America. Weight ranges go from 3.5 up to 6.5 pounds. And the Snowy owl is diurnal to do their hunting during daylight hours. Of course during the arctic summer there is no night … so daylight hunting abilities are required.

Summers are spent in the wide open tundra spaces near and above the arctic circle. They hunt for lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey in 24 hours of daylight conditions. Young owlet survival is highly dependent upon available food, usually lemmings. When prey is abundant, parent birds can successfully feed all of the hatched young nestlings. In good years that number could be as high as 10. Clutch sizes of three to 11 have been reported. A mid-range number is more common. It has been calculated that one Snowy Owl will eat 1,600 lemmings per year.

Staying warm is how this owl is well adapted to cope with severe weather. Thick layers of feathers capture body heat efficiently. Living in the arctic demands it. Its face, beak, and full length of its legs are wrapped in fluffy heat retaining feathers. Today’s image shows body feathers with dark brown tip edges. Over time, as feathers naturally molt, less brown and more white will appear. Females tend to retain some brown edged feathers in contrast to males that eventually will appear all white as they age.

In some years, mature birds may stay all winter long in their breeding territory. However, many will migrate to Canada and the northeast portions of the United States. Less common are Snowy owls showing up in Midwest states, but it does happen. A banded snowy owl in 1992 in Massachusetts was recaptured in Montana in 2015 so biologist know that a life span of 23 years and 10 months is very doable for this species. During some extreme years reports of Snowy owls as far south as Texas and even Florida have been noted.

The Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm has two mounted specimens of Snowy Owls used in educational programs or just for being looked at by visitors. Seeing a real live Snowy in Marshall County is a rare thing. Today’s image was made north of Clemons 1.5 miles and then west about one-quarter mile on 150th. If you go there, consider yourself lucky indeed if the bird is still in the vicinity. I urge you to look carefully at any big white bird this winter. I just could be your life list addition, a very Merry Christmas present early.

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On a much smaller scale, another raptor, this time an AMERICAN KESTREL (Falco sparverius) was observed recently hovering over a rural roadside ditch. The day was windy and the little falcon was rapidly beating its wings but staying in one place over the grasses. I prepared my camera just in case an image would present itself. As I drove slowly closer, and as I was about to put the camera to my eye, the bird dove headfirst into the grass. A second later it flushed back into the air. But this time it was carrying in the talons of one leg a mouse-like furry critter. Somehow through all the wind noise and waving grasses, the kestrel’s eyes found a source of food that was vulnerable. The bird made a quick dive and found success. It had its meal for the day.

Predator-prey relationships of a kestrel and a mouse are just one illustration of nature at work. Most of the time we humans do not see the claws, fangs, or talons of any predator at work. It is an on-going struggle for numerous prey species to stay hidden or otherwise escape from predators. Most of the time they succeed. As for predators, they may have success only one time in ten attempts. So they have to be sneaky, quick and cunning to pull off their duty to survive. Mother Nature has it figured out. We as human observers need to restrain from placing anthropomorphic judgments on these life-death struggles.

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DEER harvest numbers are almost identical at this point in the season compared to last year. In 2016 at this time 75,909 had been reported. For 2017 the number is 76,204. These data points are as of mid week so these numbers will have advanced as of today. I’ll have a more in depth review of total deer harvest numbers in mid-January after all the seasons have closed.

Reminder: A few large antlered deer are always taken each year. Some were planned and hopefully everything fell into place. if so, congratulations. Most however were just opportunities that presented a once in a life time “oh my gosh”moment. In either scenario, a trip to a reputable taxidermist might be in order.

Preliminary scores for large antlered deer can be made. But remember, there needs to be at least 60 days of room temperature drying time of a deer’s cleaned skull or skull plate before official scoring can take place. This scribe is an official measurer for the State of Iowa and/or for archery taken deer trophies via the Pope and Young Club.

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The annual PHOTO CONTEST sponsored by the Marshall County Conservation Board will close for entries soon. However the winter party to announce the winners in various outdoor categories will be Feb. 6, 2018. At that time a chili supper will be provided and awards given to the winners. All the entries will be on display to admire. This will be the 17th MCCB Photo Contest. Call 752-5490 for details. The Feb 6th supper will be held at the Grimes Farm, in the Conservation Center classroom. If you want to enter the contest for 2017, check out your supply of likely candidate photos, pick the best you have, and prepare to share your outdoor moments with everyone. Good luck.

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For your funny bone: I was going to wear my camouflage shirt today, but I couldn’t find it.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.