Barrow 2011, part 2: Snowy Owls

by John Puschock on October 27, 2011

Snowy Owl in flight

The traditional Inupiat name for Barrow is Ukpeagvik, which means “place where Snowy Owls are hunted”. It’s a hint that you probably have a good chance of seeing one here. Even so, I was a little concerned about finding one this year. John Vanderpoel and his brother Bill were coming up a few days before the “official” tour, and he still needed Snowy Owl (and Ross’s Gull) for his big year. On my previous tours, we’ve seen the owls in small numbers, about 2 or 3 each year. John was staying for just a day-and-a-half. I didn’t think he’d miss it, but very few birds are truly guaranteed, especially when you have a limited time to look. To reassure myself, I contacted a few people up there to see what the owl situation was. They said it was a better year than the last few, so I felt pretty good that John would get his birds.

No one said exactly how good it was, so I arrived without any lofty expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Snowy Owl before I even got off the plane; one was sitting on a pole alongside the taxiway (and in the same field of view I saw an Arctic Fox running away from the plane). John had arrived earlier in the day and he was waiting for me at the airport, along with the news that he already got his two targets. The pressure was off before it was even on.

The next day John, Bill, and I birded around Barrow and saw a minimum of 13 owls, and I had similar results on subsequent days. Many of the owls were in town, and they were moving around. I would not be surprised if there was at least twice that many in the areas we birded.

[You can click on most landscape format photos below for larger, better quality versions.]

Snowy Owl in flight

Apparently lemming numbers were high, leading to a bumper crop of owls this year. Many were heavily marked and likely young of the year. The age and sex of Snowy Owls can be determined by a combination of the amount of barring and shape of the tail feathers. Young females are the most heavily marked age/sex class while adult males are mostly white. The tail feathers of young birds are pointier than those of adults. Except for the obvious adult males, I have not made an attempt to age and sex the birds in the following photographs. If you feel like trying your hand at it, Part 1 of “the Pyle Guide” and this paper will help.

Snowy Owl on utility wire

Snowy Owl on street light

There were so many owls around that Bill remarked it was like a Harry Potter movie. I saw two sitting on a utility poll, apparently tolerating each other, but we also saw two fighting in the streets.  It happened really fast while I was driving, and by the time I stopped, all I could manage was this photo of the aftermath through the windshield:

Snowy Owl fight aftermath

Snowy Owl

I believe this one was the winner of the fight.

And some more owls:

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl on utility pole

Snowy Owl in flight

Got this one in flight...

Snowy Owl in flight

...and almost got this one. If only their wings were shorter.

Snowy Owl on sculpture

In case you’ve ever wondered, it takes a Snowy Owl about two seconds and 4 gulps to swallow a lemming. Near the end of the tour, we saw an owl swoop down on something. At first we weren’t sure if it was successful, but then it pulled a lemming out of the snow. Before we had time to get a camera on it, the lemming was gone.

Snowy Owl on street light

Snowy Owl on utility pole

An adult male Snowy Owl, one of two seen

I generally use Photoshop — actually Adobe Camera Raw mostly — sparingly to make the photo look like reality (or at least how I remembered it to look), but I played around with this next one a little bit. In Adobe Camera Raw, after adjusting the exposure, I reduced “Clarity” and “Vibrance” to the minimum and moved “Saturation” up to the maximum and came up with this:

Snowy Owl

The owls were active at night too. I looked out the window one evening and saw an owl on a pole across the street. After some experimentation, I got this shot:

Snowy Owl on pole at night

I’ll leave with you some video [select 720p instead of 360p after you press play for HD video].  Next up will be the Ivory Gull.

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  • Anonymous

    Gorgeous. I envy you.Amazing photos.You were able to capture some personality of these owls.

  • John


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