Editor’s note: In This State is a new weekly column by Andrew Nemethy, Bryan Pfeiffer and Dirk Van Susteren about Vermont’s characters and innovators, its unique ideas and quirky places. The three authors, who will take turns writing the column, formerly worked as reporters and editors for the The Times Argus and Rutland Herald and have contributed to other publications in Vermont and around the country.
A snowy owl usually appears indifferent. Sitting on a fencepost along a barren cornfield, it is a bird without country or concern. Driving snow and vicious winds don’t matter. You don’t matter either. A snowy owl doesn’t care that you’ve driven halfway across Vermont to see a bird. A snowy owl doesn’t even know you exist. Or if it does know, it doesn’t really give a hoot about you anyway.
So you stand there next to the car among birdwatchers, hands and feet already frozen, peering through binoculars at a creature that has flown here from someplace dreadfully colder than Vermont. Out there in its field the owl is languid, a frosty statue lazy to the world. Or so it seems. Then a birdwatcher coughs, or curses the wind chill, and the owl spins its head.
At that moment a snowy owl will change your life.
Its eyes, lemon-yellow laser beams, make you melt. They spring open and glisten from a fluffy white expression. In a single glance, the owl says, “I’ve seen icy places you can only imagine. Now go about your business, go lead your dreary life. I’ve got rodents to kill here.”
Snowy owls are offering passing glances to many Vermonters this winter. The arctic birds have descended on the state in unusually high numbers, turning up in a few strange places: on a brick chimney in Brattleboro, a garden gazebo in Panton or during a Christmas party in Colchester. For bundled-up birdwatchers, the hard-core and the incidental alike, the snowy owl invasion is among this winter’s great natural events.
One of those birders is Ian Worley, a retired professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont. For some birdwatchers, chasing a white owl can be like Ahab pursuing his whale (the obsession without the revenge motive). But Worley, who now prefers to observe nature close to home in Cornwall, has been discovering snowy owls during his routine outings around Addison County. In his finding and discussing these owls, Worley blends biology, morality and concern for a warming planet.
“Everyone has encountered a snowy owl, in children’s stories, in movies, somewhere,” says Worley, graying and ruddy with a ruggedness that defies his 70 years. “All that weight of culture rides with this remarkable, charismatic oddity: an owl that you can see during the day! Yet not many have seen it.”
A snowy owl is an icon of icy places. It breeds in some of the coldest climate on earth, in an arctic band around the planet’s cap. Conventional wisdom holds that when its primary food supply, lemmings, undergoes a population crash, snowy owls, particularly young birds, are forced south in search of replacement rodents. But new research suggests snowy owls also can move south when food supplies are abundant. Lots of food may mean that lots of owls survive until winter, at which point the adults chase younger birds from the better feeding areas. Outcompeted for turf, the youngsters wander to northern states. This winter they are turning up from coast to coast.
Even so, snowy owls are tough to spot. A banner winter like this one has produced only about two dozen sightings in Vermont since Sheryl Larson noted the first snowy on Nov. 24 while walking the Colchester Causeway into Lake Champlain. More owls almost certainly await discovery.
It is not unusual to find snowy owls near water. Many of the North American discoveries are along or near coastlines. Snowy owls certainly prefer small land mammals, which they hear beneath the snowpack or sight with acuity before dispatching them with sharp talons and then swallowing the prey headfirst. But they’ll also take what’s locally abundant, including small ducks or even fish snatched from the water’s surface. The breakwater on Burlington’s waterfront has attracted snowy owls in the past.
Rotarians aren’t necessarily known as birdwatchers, at least not most Rotarians. But the Colchester-Milton Rotary Club got an owl visit during its Christmas party at Carol MacDonald’s house along the Winooski River in Colchester. One guest happened to look out the window to see a huge owl land in a cottonwood along the river. It stayed there a bit, then launched and flew a loop on broad wings. “It was very dramatic,” says MacDonald. And then with a laugh she added: “Nature at its best!”
When it does appear, a snowy owl might favor a particular perch for weeks on end. Other times, it is a one-day wonder, a phantom that frustrates birdwatchers who arrive a day too late.
Pat Folsom and her friend Pat Allen were a day late for a snowy owl that had been visiting the Button Bay area last month. Or so they thought. They were about to call it quits when Folsom decided to drive Slang Road in Panton, which leads from farmland into yet more farmland. They drove past a small wetland and climbed a gentle rise to find a gnarly roadside maple. Perched on a branch was their owl.
“You can never get enough of a snowy owl, can you?” says Folsom, who lives in Fayston but pursues birds with dedication far beyond Vermont. “How far they’ve traveled to get here. It’s amazing to think about the journey.”
What motivates Worley, whose resume reads like an encyclopedia of ecology, including research in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, are the mysteries of nature nearby. He spotted more than 230 bird species within a 40-minute drive from Cornwall last year.
Living in Addison County, among its wetlands and farmland, Worley is at ease among duck hunters and farmers. A bald eagle is enough to get anyone’s heart pumping. Most duck hunters enjoy seeing eagles soaring over Lake Champlain, and are eager to tell Worley of the experience. But snowy owls are another matter.
“You can’t go to a snowy owl lookout,” Worley says. “The snowy owl just appears. It doesn’t arrive by wing. It just appears.”
When one does appear, and Worley is fortunate enough to find it, he is exchanging glances, close to his home, with an unwitting messenger from far away. Like the polar bear, the snow leopard and other charismatic species, the snowy owl is intrinsic to our collective subconscious, “a reminiscence,” as Worley puts it, of the Arctic, its extreme wonder and its value. “It’s a connection to a place,” he says, “that is never, never taken from you.”
So whether Vermonters see it or not, a visiting snowy owl has the capacity to connect the land and people in this state to the tundra and wildlife of the Arctic. If we care about climate change and the loss of tundra and the ice pack, Worley says, he would pick the snowy owl to help tell the story.
“It carries the knowledge of the Arctic and where we are,” he says. “The Arctic is its home. We are its home. It has one home.”