Goin’ on an owl hunt

Published 10:19 am Friday, February 20, 2015

By Mary Hokanson

Austin Audobon Club, For the Herald

Audubon members told me during the winter, snowy owls hang out northeast of Blooming Prairie. I’ve never seen owls “in the wild.” I had to go see one.

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With Nelson Thompson’s hand-drawn map fixed permanently in my brain, I was quickly confused by the avenue and street numbers. No one told me Dodge and Steele counties call their roads by different numbers. That is not a small detail, but after two hours of roaming, it is very clear a guy could get lost out in flatlands whose corners all look similar.

A member of the Austin Audubon Club snapped this picture of a snowy owl near Blooming Prairie.  Photo provided

A member of the Austin Audubon Club snapped this picture of a snowy owl near Blooming Prairie. Photo provided

My first attempt to find where owls may be seen brought me over a new section of railroad track and back to Blooming Prairie. The second attempt sent me, eventually, east, south, and to an Interstate 90 entrance. The map was perfectly drawn; the brain did not process as well.

It was obvious I needed more than a map. Dick Smaby emailed me an Minnesota Ornithology Union site with recent sightings pinned over a very clear grid. As long as I kept inside Dodge County, it would be easy to go north/south on the avenues and east/west on the streets. I drove north, east, south and west. I saw the same farmhouses, the same curving creeks, the same long pole barns and the same pine trees. I saw no owls. I did see lots of snow buntings or horned larks, or Lapland Longspurs, or cute, little brown birds, but they wouldn’t let me get near enough for identification (Did I mention I just started birding lately?). I know I saw American crows.

With no luck in finding snowy owls, I asked my daughter, Ann, to share in the hunt. Off we go with her daughter, Cecily, 6, who, with her brother, Henry, 10, turned into an instant birder the past two years we’ve started this new hobby.

Observant Cecily mentions we have passed that farmhouse before. I don’t reply. An hour later, I drive down another boringly straight road. A huge white bird flies right over in front of us.

Ann yells, “That’s not a gull.”

I scream, “That’s not a pelican.”

Ann eyeballs the undulating flight pattern with her goggles (binoculars). I try to concentrate on the same flight, but find the car drifts toward the ditch. Oh, I’m the driver!

“He’s on the fifth pole down. I got him; I see him!”

We slowly creep up, pause, creep. We are right under the pole and can see our first-ever snowy owl. He is a beaut. Through my goggles, I can pet those lovely feathers, watch those darting yellow eyes, and marvel at the irruption that brought that gorgeous creature down from the Arctic Circle to be here a few short weeks.

I can’t believe it; I do not have my camera — a “scenic alert” and no camera. We watch the owl for 20 minutes; we are mesmerized. Later I email all the birders I’ve met and tell them the big news. They all say that I didn’t need a camera; I’ll never forget that first time.

The next day I take out Merlene Stiles, president of the Austin Audubon, Ann and Cecily. We try to find the dropped pin in the cell phone, but it’s gone. No problem because here’s a hint: look for a rock in the cornfield. The beige/grey rock moves. Ann finds a snowy owl! It is Merlene’s first, and we are there to smile and laugh with her.

Along comes a car, slows down and stops. It’s Ken Vail, the pin-dropper on the MOU map. I admit to him I was beginning to dislike him and his dumb map because it was not helping me at all.

We share the excitement of the bird find, and exchange phone numbers when he offers to call us if he sees any more owls on his way home. When a few minutes later, he asks if we found any more, I tell him Cecily hasn’t seen this one yet. She can’t make the goggles focus, and we can’t explain where it is. Ken comes back, puts his scope on the window and helps her see the owl. We all get a great look, too.

Back I go the third day in a row, this time with Merlene. Ahead I think I spot an owl, but I want Merlene to see it first. “Look for a big snowball, something whiter than the snow, something that looks like it doesn’t exactly belong. Remember, Nels said it’s trickier than you might think to find them until you get used to it.”

She looks right at the spot and calmly says, “Oh, I see the snowball, but it’s just a patch of snow… that patch of snow looking right at me! It’s a snowy owl.”

You can only find your first snowy owl once. There is nothing quite like it.

Photographing the snowy owl is an impossible skill. I am so proud of my blurry, puffy first pic that I don’t care how it looks in print. Perfect photos are found on the internet; you can get them free. My first photo is my owl, and it is priceless.

One more time we go owling. This time I am relaxed and am the off-the-hook guide. I helped Merlene find her first; now she is under pressure to find one for her husband, Jim, who joins us. She doesn’t see it that way.

We struggle. Our owl is not where he was three times before. We drive and drive. We scan; we squint. We get a call from Ken. He is in the neighborhood and will help us. He does. In 15 minutes, he guides us to a beautiful white male on a utility pole. We do not drive up very close, but get a nice picture without the special massive lenses serious photographers use. He flies into a cornfield. He is a big snowball and easily spotted. We find him on another pole, but then leave him alone. Chasing owls is not an interest of ours; we are just thankful for the opportunity to share and observe their temporary home here in Dodge County.

Why do they come here? Merlene said her dad hunted in this area that used to all be swamp. Ken thinks it could be in their DNA to come here. Why this rectangle of area and not that section?

Chris from Rochester, whom we met along the road one trip, said “they have always been here…lots of them….just fan out from the church (Westfield Lutheran?); you’ll find them. They go where they want, and they go all over.”

It has not been my experience that they are all over and there are lots of them.

Still, there is one more hint.

A good fisherman told me, “You just have to spend time on the water.”

Time traveling the flatland rectangles and perseverance should get a sighting, but I, personally, lean heavily on my new birding friends. They deserve the credit. There are polite rules of engagement and some proper birding etiquette procedures to follow.

“Keep your eyes on the utility poles. Go in early morning as sun rises and/or at sunset when the wind dies down.” Another said, “Think like an owl.” Hmm … food?

What a happy, enjoyable new hobby for anyone.