On the prowl for owls
Published 10:31 am Friday, February 20, 2015
Audubon members look for snowy owls
On Monday afternoon, with the wind blowing and the cold weather in full swing, the Austin Audubon Society’s Treasurer Peter Mattson and President Merlene Stiles went out in search of snowy owls. Armed with pairs of binoculars, a spotting scope and a camera, the two took off in Stiles’ car and started to look. The duo looked for the owls a few miles outside of Blooming Prairie, driving slowly on dirt roads along large fields and stopping frequently over the course of about three hours.
“You just look — scan out on these corn stubble fields, bare fields — and you just look for a white lump that looks a little different than all the other white lumps,” Mattson said. “And a lot of the time they’re just sitting there among the corn stubble.”
Mattson, along with many other Audubon members, enjoys looking for snowy owls during the winter. Mattson said the birds are usually found in the tundra, but some relocate due to little food or a large population of owls in their original area, which brings them close to Austin.
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As the two scanned the fields with binoculars, they reminisced about past owl-watching adventures.
“If it’s windy, you’ll find them on the east side of the wind,” Stiles said. “Sometimes it’s just a little mound of prairie grass and they’re hunkered down in there. Or sometimes you’ll find them on the telephone poles, often times trying to catch the first light in the morning or the last rays at night.”
Mattson laughed as the duo drove down the back roads.
“Now we’re in a spot that doesn’t even have a telephone pole, that’s desolate,” he laughed. “And this is what they pick, what is it about this spot?”
Stiles usually goes out birdwatching with her friend and fellow member Mary Hokanson, who first convinced Stiles to partake in the adventure. Now the two go out about twice a week, and enjoy bringing others along.
“We love watching birds, and we love taking other people to watch birds too,” Stiles said.
Although it’s not always easy to spot the white owls, Mattson and Stiles said it’s worth the wait and the temporary frustrations that come with trying to spot white birds in a field of snow.
“You end up staring at what turns out to be a lump of snow quite a bit,” Mattson laughed.
“It’s a little bit easier this year because there’s less snow,” he added. “Last year, they could be 50 yards away and you couldn’t pick them out unless they decided to fly or something.”
The duo spotted one snowy owl on a post Monday evening as the light started to dim. As they drove near, it flew across the field, showing its large wing-span and white feathers. Mattson broke out his spotting scope once it landed to get a better view. Though this was a clear view of the owl, they aren’t always easy to see.
Mattson and Stiles have had help finding the owls. Ken Vail of Owatonna has mapped out various places in the area he or others have seen the large birds. Although the dots on the map could be the same owl spotted at two different times, Stiles said she and Hokanson recently saw three owls during one trip. She was excited, because she had only ever spotted one per trip.
Mattson said the snowy owls leave the area around March, but that doesn’t mean the birdwatching comes to an end. The group will watch for birds during Christmas time with a bird-count, and Stiles said she enjoys seeing Swans during the spring. They also enjoy watching birds such as bald eagles, horned larks and red tailed hawks.
“There’s just all of this information, and all of their behaviors, their nesting behaviors, it all just builds on your watching birds and learning more about them,” Stiles said. “And it’s something you can do at all ages … you can do it at your home, you can do it on vacation, it’s just a great hobby, a life-long hobby.”
There are about 120 members in the Audubon club who go on a trip by the river every fall and spring, and hold programs and meetings during the winter at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.