The Importance of Being Observant When You Are in the Right Place At the Right Time (or, Why You Should Live Near the Dryden Rail Trail)

Snowy Owl in field copyright Holly Grant.

Snowy Owls, the largest owl in North America, are predominantly white owls that spend most of their lives in the open tundra and into the Arctic Circle. They occur all over the northern part of the earth, but during the winter, they migrate south irruptively to find food (mostly voles and lemmings). This is why—if you are out walking in a harvested cornfield or open meadow in late fall or winter, and you see what you think is a white plastic bag in the distance—you should take a second look. Snowy Owls spend a lot of their time sitting, so if you are in the right place at the right time, and you are observant, you just might find one. According to “Snowy Owls do a lot of sitting. They sit still in the same spot for hours, occasionally swiveling their head or leaning forward and blinking their big, yellow eyes to get a closer look at something. When they hunt, they use extraordinary vision and hearing to draw a bead on their prey—maybe a vole scurrying beneath the snow—and then fly, or even run, over to pounce on it.”

On November 20, 2021, local birders Matt Fendya (Buildings and Grounds Supervisor at Lime Hollow Nature Center) and his friend Kyle Nauseef found a Snowy Owl near the George Road entrance to the Dryden Rail Trail. They called their friend, Holly Grant (who lives just down the road), to come see it. She, her husband, and sister were some of the first on the scene and took one of the photos below. Word quickly spread through, an archive of bird sightings, and dozens of local birders (including Jay McGowan, who got the glamour shot of the bird) had a chance to see this infrequent visitor from a safe and respectable distance.

We are happy that such a remarkable bird was found next to the trail, and we encourage you to learn more about the Snowy Owl by visiting the links on this page. Snowy Owls are listed on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds Watch List and the 2020 IUCN* Red List, which means that this species is at risk of extinction without conservation action. Fortunately, as with all raptors, it is illegal to shoot or trap a Snowy Owl—this Federal law protects them in the winter when they are sitting in open fields looking like white plastic bags. Several organizations are working on projects to learn more about Snowy Owls and how to ensure they are with us for years to come. An important one is Project SNOWstorm, which has been tracking individual owls since 2013 to learn more about their biology and life history.

So, walk the Trail, keep your eyes open, and let us know about your interesting nature sightings.

NOTE: Snowy Owls are often “one-day wonder” birds, rarely sticking around more than a day. The one on George Road has already disappeared from the area.

Post by Diane and Chris T-H

  • Snowy Owl copyright Jay McGowan
  • Snowy Owl photographed from car copyright Matt Fendya.
  • Snowy Owl in field copyright Holly Grant.

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