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Return of the snowbird

Posted: March 16, 2012 - 9:21am

On Wednesday I returned to Sterling from the south, where I enjoyed my first winter as a snowbird.

The real snowbirds are still down there, probably quacking and cackling at my ignorance. They know better than to return to Alaska while the temperatures are below freezing and there's snow that needs shoveling.

I wintered in Bellingham, Wash., not the warmest snowbird hangout, but warm enough for me. Every morning, I checked on the Soldotna temperature, and Bellingham's was usually at least 40 degrees warmer. The two or three times it snowed down there, it wasn't enough to bother sweeping off the steps, and it was gone in a day or two. Bellingham ain't Mexico, but you don't have to wonder what's in the water or who might be around the next bend in the road.

Lots of real snowbirds, most noticeably swans and snow geese, winter in Washington. This winter, people are all aflutter about the snowy owls wintering in that area. Mike McQuade, a Bellingham freelance writer, wrote in the Seattle Times (Feb. 15, 2012): "In future years we'll likely look back on the winter of '11-'12 as the season of the snowy owl. Seems they've been showing up all over--the Nisqually Delta, Port Susan near Stanwood, a truck plant in Renton, rooftops in rural Whatcom County, and elsewhere."

At Boundary Bay Regional Park, about an hour's drive north of Bellingham in British Columbia, snowy owls attract flocks of people, and no wonder. Standing 2 feet tall and sporting a 5-foot wingspan, these are the biggest, most distinctive owl on the continent. Strikingly beautiful, the older males of the species are mostly white, and the somewhat larger females wear scattered dark spots and bars. Their large heads are round, their beaks black, their eyes huge, yellow and knowing. Some readers will recall that Harry Potter's owl, Hedwig, was a snowy owl.

These conspicuous birds can be easily seen, perching and hunting in the open. Equipped with amazing senses of sight and hearing, they hover on silent wings. Owls can detect prey at some distance, even a small rodent concealed by grasses or under the snow.

Unlike human snowbirds, owls don't migrate south for warmth, but for food. Their principal prey is the brown lemming. In years when lemming numbers are high along the owls' range -- coastal Western and Northern Alaska -- the birds produce more young. When the lemming population inevitably crashes, every four years or so, some owls have to migrate to avoid starvation.

When the pickings get slim, the older and larger birds apparently hold a dominant position in the pecking order. As a result, most of the birds in Washington and B.C. tend to be smaller, younger males.

Most years, few snowy owls show up in the Northwest. When they do appear in appreciable numbers, the fact that they visit so seldom makes them all the more desirable, interesting and welcome. Hmm. Some of us could learn something from this wise bird.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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