When a Snowy met the locals

by Greg Neise on February 16, 2012

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Illinois birder Rick Remington (who, by the way, was the original finder of now-famous Chicago Sandwich Tern) sent me a story and a set of photos he wanted to share.

Remington and a birding buddy were out just before dawn on January 29, birding Chicago’s lakefront parks, when they stumbled upon a Snowy Owl. There have been several in the area since December, and finding one was not wholly unexpected. The bird was roosting on a large sculpture in the park, and what happened next was, well, definitely not expected…

I suggested we take in the sunrise and come back later to watch her once the light was better. After John reluctantly agreed,  we walked down to the shoreline and watched a sunrise that looked for a short time like it might be world class but turned out to be very ordinary. The best was yet to come …

We returned to the owl spot 45 minutes later to find she was sitting on the ground in the open grass next to a large field. We watched her from a distance for close to 2 hours as it snowed off and on and the only activity was the occasional harassment by crows which is a minor nuisance to a snowy. Just as we were getting ready to leave, the owl adopted a defensive stance with its wings spread and eyes blazing.

 

I told John that something was about to happen, and sure enough a few seconds later a gray missile swooped in and attacked out of nowhere. At no time during the harrasment by the crows did I see the owl adopt the defensive stance she was using at this point. She instinctively understood the difference between these birds and knew this was a serious situation. I was watching the owl the entire time and took my eye off my camera for just a second, and saw that the attacking bird was a Peregrine Falcon.

I shouted “Peregrine” to John and he immediately turned his camera to follow the Falcon while I stayed with the Snowy Owl. It was cloudy with less than perfect light conditions so I quickly adjusted my camera to account for the increased shutter speed requirements of an in flight battle. I could tell just before the Falcon would attack by the way the Owl  crouched down and got ready to lunge.

It would do a somersault just as the Peregrine approached and flash its nasty talons in an attempt to scare off the Falcon. The battle lasted for 5 full minutes before the Falcon headed off in another direction and the Snowy Owl flew down to the rocks by the lake. It was a surprisingly violent and noisy encounter, with both birds shrieking loudly and the owl extending its giant wings to intimidate the smaller falcon. I fully expected this to end badly for the owl based on what I was watching. In spite of the obvious mismatch, the Snowy Owl managed to hold its own and escape unscathed.

After both birds had flown off I realized I was shaking badly with excitement that continued for at least 5 minutes. Once I settled down we gave each other a giant high five and laughed like little kids. John repeatedly remarked,  “ I can’t believe how fast a Peregrine Falcon is”. As I mentioned earlier, at the start of the attack John turned his camera to track the falcon while I stayed with the Owl the entire time. The end result is that poor John did not have one single useable picture of the attack while I had at least a few. We both said that regardless of whether the pictures turned out we were happy just to witness one of natures greatest gifts right on the Chicago Lakefront with the beautiful city skyline in the background. When I got home and looked through my photos I was thrilled to see that some of my pictures turned out! It goes without saying that I did not get a single household chore done when I got home. Thank God my wife understands the importance of a rare bird encounter!

The Peregrine was one of a pair that nests a short distance away in downtown Chicago and was defending it’s hunting turf. I’ve seen this pair escort all manner of other raptors that happen to be migrating down the lakefront out of the area, but never so close and dramatically. Here’s the rest of Rick’s amazing pictures…

And with a wink to the photographers, peace and quiet resumed.

 All photos © 2011 Rick Remington

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  • JG

    WHOA! Awesome behavioral captures!!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/D4ZZ6RDOXJD3SOALJIHBIWDM4Y James

    Awesome series. Love that last shot looks like the Snowy is winking and saying,”see I’m all right”.

    • Ajyes72

      Or, “I’m now blind in one eye.”

  • Kirby Adams

    All those lessons mom taught him about avoiding Gyrfalcons paid off!

  • http://www.joannao.blogspot.com JoannaOC

    AMAZING photos! thanks so much for sharing them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1041576428 Orin Keplinger

    This is one more of your excellent examples of hard work, skill, and perseverance masquerading  as “luck”.  This Mississippi Kite feeding example is much closer to “luck”.http://flic.kr/s/aHsjsjVWU8
    As Ever, Orin

  • Mmakadon

    AWESOME! Thanks for sharing.

  • Turtle Mom

    AWESOME and AMAZING photos!  How lucky to have witnessed this! 

  • Peter Weber

    Greg, I have seen this exact behavior before in the Duluth Harbor.  A Snowy Owl fought off a persistent Peregrine Falcon by laying on its back and swatting at the diving falcon with its razor sharp talons. After a few lost feathers, the falcon finally gave up and went back to hunting Rock Doves.

  • Robert

    that was incredible, oh to have just one of these encounters, lucky ducks!

  • http://www.zenfolio.com/arizonabirder Lisa W

    What a great thing to witness. 

  • SeEtta

    Excellent documentation of antagonistic encounter for both species.   Great photos.  All of us who photograph birds know how we get shaky when witnessing  drama with our cameras

  • Spitler1

    Super fantastic!!

  • http://twitter.com/Museocat Diane Shaw

    What a fantastic encounter between two of the fiercest species of birds, and in an urban Chicago park at that. I’ve wondered how birds can sort out so quickly whether other birds flying above them are predators, or simply non-threatening, or just nuisances, as you say. I’m so glad to be able to see the reaction of the indomitable Snowy Owl here in your photos.

  • Russell Cannings

    Wicked series! Looks quite anthropomorphic– like a dancing gypsy or something. An amazing sight to see no doubt– although I don’t think it’s winking; just a thick snowflake passing in front of the eye.  Thanks for posting this Greg!

  • Dreedster

    Yikes!

  • Wkentw

    Fanatastic!  So pleased you got the images.  I’d have been shaking so badly from excitement, I’d have nothing but blurs.

  • Rob Oresteen

    Where have i seen this before? For some reason I thought I saw this last year…strange. Oh well, great story and pics.

  • Nora

    All I can say is what others have said, FANTASTIC!!!!!  It looked like the Snowy shut its eyes when the peregrine barreled in from above.  

  • Avo Images

    What an amazing encounter!  Thanks for sharing these images.  They are breath taking!

  • JJ

    What a gift!  Love the wink to the photographers… 

  • Annie

    WOW!  Just had to share this!  I too would not have gotten anything done after that!!  WOW!  Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Annie

    WOW!  Just had to share this!  I too would not have gotten anything done after that!!  WOW!  Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Rob

    Wow!  I’ve seen 6 Snowy Owls up here in the Toronto area; but no encounters like that.  Thanks for the story!
    http://robandtheanimals.blogspot.com/2012/01/snowy-6.html

  • Anonymous

    Spectacular!

  • Walt Lutz

    Fantastic. The wink photo cracked me up.

  • Jeffrey Gordon

    Hey Greg, 
    Congratulations to you and to Rick on a terrific post. The many excited comments here are testimony to just how much impact it had.But this reaction, combined with Ted Eubanks’ post yesterday to the ABA blog, got me really thinking about the whole issue of birders/photographers, Snowy Owls, and harassment, and how we should best reduce our impacts.
    I invite everyone to take a look. http://blog.aba.org/2012/02/we-love-the-jerk-snowy-owls.html Good birding,Jeff

  • Lmec

    Wonderful photos guys!  What a great thing to see!

  • http://TheBirdersReport.com/ Larry Jordan

    Awesome photos guys. I’m glad you could get such excellent action shots without yourselves having to disturb the owl.

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  • Larry Granat

    Absolutely Amazing! Great Pictures!

  • David Larson

    I would put my money on the Snowy Owl in this encounter. A few years ago a Gyrfalcon was harassing a Snowy at Logan Airport in Boston. The Snowy managed to snag the Gyr’s wing, they both slammed to the ground, shook themselves off and flew off – with the Snowy in pursuit of the Gyr for some miles until they were out of sight.

  • ann

    wow

  • Pat Durkin

    I saw this same Snowy Owl in the exact place the day before the “close encounter” with the Peregrine Falcon. During my brief observation all she had to contend with was two guys flying a kite nearby. The kite did not phase her in the least. This was her space and she would not be intimidated. Then along came the Peregrine and she showed her stuff. Good gal!

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  • Theclan

    Thank You for the pictures and story. Really glad we have patient people like you to bring nature to us.  Have been waiting and watching for a Snowy, but so far NO LUCK.  Thanks again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dance-Crew/100001834520502 Dance Crew

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Stunning photography.

  • Irene

    Wow! Thank you so very much for sharing. The Snowy Owl is a very special bird for me and learning more about its behavior is icing on the cake!

  • Christina

    Gorgeous shots!

  • M Woods41

    Nice…love the wink at the end

  • Pieter Leenhouts

    Fascinating story. By the colouring would that be a juvenile Snowy? Both being Arctic dwellers I imagine the Snowy knew what to expect.  Thanks for sharing.
    -Pieter Leenhouts

  • Ccooley25

    Boy this is some chain of events!!!  Your photos of the Snowy owl are so clear it almost looks cartoon-like!  What photos!!!  Thanks for sharing this!

  • Seigen1

    What a wonderful drama between the two birds!  Of course, the owl was wiser. Mind over might!  Terrific photography!

  • Glenda_franich

    Our agency was recently visited by our local chapter of the Audubon Society (Portland, Oregon) along with their resident Peregrin Falcon Finnegan. To then read this account of a very close encounter between the snowy owl and the falcon was truly an amazing follow-up to our visit. Both birds are stunning creatures and I am glad points were made and both left the scene “intact.” Thank you so much for sharing the story. The images are wonderful!

  • Glenda_franich

    Our agency was recently visited by our local chapter of the Audubon Society (Portland, Oregon) along with their resident Peregrin Falcon Finnegan. To then read this account of a very close encounter between the snowy owl and the falcon was truly an amazing follow-up to our visit. Both birds are stunning creatures and I am glad points were made and both left the scene “intact.” Thank you so much for sharing the story. The images are wonderful!

  • Kevin Karlson

    When I first opened this account, I thought the first picture was a person dressed up in a Snowy Owl suit as a joke, due to the “comical” expression on the owl’s face. Once I scrolled down, I realized the expression was not one of a comical nature, but desperation and survival depicted in its rawest form. I worked in the Arctic tundra for four years as a biologist, but this interaction is one of the most amazing that I have ever “seen”. Thanks for the great photo work and story. Kevin Karlson

  • Bob Waddell

    Absolutely remarkable! So glad I was steered to this page

  • Chandira

    Wow.. How cool to witness that!! Great photos.  

  • Bill Dove

    It is uncommon for us living in the lower range of the Snowy to see interactions between those owls and the larger falcons but it is not uncommon in the northern range of the Snowy and Peregrine. They are often competing for the same prey species. The Gyrfalcon is often lethal in its competition with the Snowy.

    The above exchange would seem more one of “lets see if we can bother this owl enough that it will move along so as to not be a competitor”. The mobbing of the corvids is more one of insecurity on the part of the crows rather than competition for food. Corvids are actually a great indicator of hidden owls. 

    One of the facinating aspects to an arial display like those is the “dance” with rarely blood spilled. The raptors have a great respect for the risk of actual contact. Not saying it doesn’t occur but the airshow is often enough to re-establish momentary territory. The breeding season brings a whole other level to the party.

    Certainly one of natures natural interactions between 3 species trying to survive for another day. You fellas were fortunate and enjoyed the fruits of your patients and labor. 

  • Heather

    Wonderful capture!  Thanks for sharing…  what a great interaction…

  • Guest

    Great photos! Would have been cool to see it as a video!

  • k Zwick

    Wow!  What fantastic photos and an amazing encounter!

  • 71ChevelleSS

    Two amazing birds and a great capture with the camera lense!  I wish I had been a witness to this experience.  Thank you for sharing your photos and story!

  • http://www.rachelbellenoit.com/ rachbell

    Totally amazing footage, or should I say ‘phot’age!

  • Brakeml

    Stunning pictures! Thank you for sharing with all of us!

  • Emlantz

    Wow Nature  really is wild…I was scared for both!!  But How Amazing that you caught this!!!!  Thanks for sharing.

  • Lori Ramsdell

    Amazing shots! Loved the first pic, he looks like he’s jumping, and the wink! Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.facebook.com/buster.slaybaugh Buster Slaybaugh

    Nice defense…………..

  • http://www.facebook.com/buster.slaybaugh Buster Slaybaugh

    Nice Defense…………………

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic!

  • RiversongGallery

    Awesome.  Thank you for sharing such a fortuitous encounter, for you, not so much the owl.  Your photos really captured the tension and energy of the situation.  Congratulations!

  • Claudiaholtphotoartist

    AWESOME!  (sounds sophmoric but nevertheless Awesome!).

  • Daniel L. Phillips

    My mom shares with me a story.. In 1957. I was two years old.. We had a small home up the street about a mile from where we live today..  My mom would of been 22 years old in her own home by herself out in the middle of back then.. Nowhere.( A wooded country side with plenty of wildlife). A snowy white owl flew in and landed on the banaster of the back porch. My mom was doing dishes or something and only momentarily glanced out.  She thought it was a white cat.. It sat there and sat there watching her.. She finished her dishes and started out on the porch.. It startled her because it wasn’t scared of her.. It’s like he was use to  watching her all the time.. It finally flew away. 

    • Bill Dove

      Daniel: Many of the large owls have been seen to have “cat like” looks. The narrowing of a content member of the genus added to the similarity. Even those without ear tuffs. Snowy owls are often very tolerant of human approach. In the past their beauty and tolerance combined with their uncommon arrivals often resulted in their being killed, unfortunately.

      • Bill Dove

        Sorry, the second sentence should have read: The narrowing of the eyes of a content …..

  • Cindy

    What an amazing encounter. I love the last picture in the series, “piece of cake.” all calm like.  So coolo you capturd it all in pictures.

  • Jan Eitzen

    Wow! and Wow! again.  Thanks for that photo story.  On the eighth photo the owl has its eye closed, almost like expecting the worst.  

  • nellyb

    WOW is all I can say you lucky guys.  I love the last photo where the Snowy seems to be winking.  LOL

  • http://www.avengrace.com/ Avenssong

    Pretty cool to see the series! I’ve seen both of these birds at fairly close range, on the coast of Baffin Island (Qikiqtarjuaq), and it was always impressive to see the speed and attack skills of a Peregrine. I had never seen a Snowy Owl take these defensive postures, though! They obviously both consider their talons to be their fiercest weapons. Wonderful photos!

  • Sophie

    outrageous!

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  • Anon

    Haters gonna hate.

  • Birdthyme45

    How awesome!

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  • Kathleen Walker

    I witnessed a similar battle between two osprey and a Great Blue Heron last summer. The heron attacked the ospreys’ nest and the ospreys tried to drown the heron. The osprey so outclassed the heron it was like watching an F15 fighting a paper kite. It also went on for about 5 minutes and was riveting. I made my photos into a slideshow set to the theme to Topgun

  • http://www.kda999.info/ KDA999

    I thought that the bird this big, can just kick ass to small falcon.

  • Monteen

    WOW!

  • Stewart Monckton

    Wow!  That is a remarkable set of pictures – once in a life time event I image!

  • Mkeane_moore

    Could you please describe what camera/lens and settings you used for this series?  Also, if you have written any articles on how to capture encounters such as this, it would great to see those references…thanks!! fabulous photos!

    • Rick remington

      Sorry for the delay in my response. I used a Nikon D 7000 with a Nikon 300 mm lens set to f8 in Apeture priority in manual focus. The last second adjustment was the ISOs which I increased from 200 to 400 in order to capture the fast action in lower light conditions. It was my best guess based on lighting conditions and I did not have much time to react as it happened so fast. I truly wish I had better lighting conditions but I did the best I could under the circumstances. I focused on the Owl the entire time because I knew from past experience tracking a moving Peregrine is impossible in low light.

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  • Johncliftonorr

    Wow ! what a story.I am glad the owl is alright.

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  • Dslenz

    Fabulous!!! What a thrill to see that!!

  • Brinkman_april

    outstanding thanks for sharing!

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  • Kurt Helf

    I don’t understand the notion that the encounter was more dangerous for the snowy.  It’s the heavier bird with larger talons, yes?  Is it because of the Peregrine’s speed that the snowy was in danger?
    A buddy of mine and I saw a snowy in the same location during Xmas.

    • Bill

      The Peregrine’s advantage, and it is noteworthy, is it’s manouverability in the air over the basically grounded Snowy. In the air the Peregrine would again be superior to the Snowy because of manuverability (agility). Their respectful foot (toe) length would be similar with strength given to the Snowy so on the ground the Snowy would have a slight advantage of strength but as I mentioned much earlier in these comments “This is not about killing or injuring. These ballets are about territory and the removal of competition without real peril.

      The Snowy can not concentrate on hunting if bothered by the Peregrine and the Peregrine is using up calories to hopefully remove the competition.

      This is pure nature with a matching of flight skills, speed, hearing and styles of offensive and defensive techniques.

  • Val

    Thanks for the documentation of this great encounter!!!   I have goosebumps here just looking at the pictures!
     

  • hankeyJ

    wow, great pics!!  had to be amazing to catch the action…the owl is simply beautiful!!!

  • Crittermomx7

    simply amazing and so cool to be in the right place at the right time! one will never forget such a event-great photos too!

  • Crittermomx7

    it is my understand from watching Nat Geo film, that part of the danger of  the falcon is the crushing force of the impact on the prey-Pers can dive at 110 MPH according to Nat Geo info-pretty amazing as I know from the same source that the Snowy is a very powerful hunter as well-really neat discussion here about this-nice to find fellow birders who willl share their adventures-us stay at home hermits sure do appreciate it!

    • Bill Dove

      Following is a list, by species, of raptor nest cams:
      [b]Bald Eagles:[/b]
      [url=http://www.iws.org/bald_eagles/nestcam.htm]Channel Islands Cams[/url]
      [url=http://www.audubonofflorida.org/friendsoftheeagle/cam.html]Tesoro Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.capecoral.net/eaglecam/index.cfm]Cape Coral Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.fws.gov/nctc/cam/]Shepherdstown[/url]
      [url=http://www.wvec.com/cams/eagle1.html]Norfolk[/url]
      [url=http://www.friendsofblackwater.org/camhtm2.html]Blackwater Cam[/url]
      [url=https://wwwnotes.fs.fed.us/wo/wfrp/find_a_photo.nsf/eaglecam]Deschutes Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.hancockwildlifechannel.org/index.php?topic=cam-sites]Hancock Cams[/url]
      [url=http://www.briloon.org/watching-wildlife/eagle-cam.php]Briloon Cam[/url]
      [url=http://birdcam.xcelenergy.com/Eaglecam.asp]Ft. St. Vrain[/url]
      [url=http://www.firstlightpower.com/eagles/default.asp]First Light Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch/eaglecam/index.html]Kent, Wa. Cam[/url]

      [b]Golden Eagles:[/b]
      [b]Falcons:[/b]
      [url=http://newyorkwild.org/kestrel/kestrel.htm]N.Y. Kestrel[/url]
      [url=http://www.kestrelcam.org/]California Kestrel[/url]
      [url=http://birdcam.xcelenergy.com/kestrelcam.asp]Colorado Kestrel[/url]
      [url=http://www.aep.com/environmental/education/falconcam/birdcam.asp]Ft. Wayne Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.boonshoftmuseum.org/falconcam.html]Boonshoft Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.buffaloaudubon.com/falconcam.htm]Buffalo Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://ccb.wm.edu/vafalcons/falconcam/falconcam_cobisland2.htm]Cobb Island Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://ccb.wm.edu/vafalcons/falconcam/falconcam_jamesriverbridge1.htm]James River Bridge Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.falconcam-cmnh.org/news.php]Cleveland Peregrine Cam[/url][url=http://ohiodnr.com/wildlife/dow/falcons/live_nestbox_video.aspx]Ohio Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/extras/frodocam/default.htm]Brisbane Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.dairynet.com/environment/bird_cam.php]Wisconsin Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://falcons.hamiltonnature.org/]Hamilton Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.falconcam.med.ualberta.ca/cam2.html]Edmonton Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.riverwatchonline.org/project_falcon/index_frame_cam.html]North Dakota[/url]
      [url=http://www.nps.gov/shen/photosmultimedia/falconcam.htm]Shenandoah Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.epl.org/falconcam/]Evanston Peregrine Cam[/url]
      [url=http://www.enelbirdcam.com/eng/bc02_05.html]Eurasian Kestrel Cam[/url]
      [b]Hawks:[/b]
      [url=http://www.nycaudubon.org/home/redHawk.shtml]Red-tailed Hawk Cam, NYC[/url]
      [url=http://www.kgw.com/livecams/content.html?livecams_birdcams]Red-tailed Hawk Cam, KGW[/url]
      [url=http://amps-tools.mit.edu/hawkcam/]Red-tailed Hawk Cam, AMPS[/url]
      [url=http://www.palemale.com/]Pale Male[/url]
      [b]Osprey:[/b]
      [url=http://www.earthcam.com/usa/dc/osprey/index.html]District of Columbia[/url]
      [url=http://www.friendsofblackwater.org/camhtm.html]Friends of Blackwater[/url]
      [url=http://www.capecoral.net/ospreycam/]Cape Coral[/url]
      [url=http://www.saaksi.fi/]Finland[/url]
      [url=http://www.ospreywatch.co.uk/webcam.htm]England[/url]
      [url=http://www.rspb.org.uk/webcams/birdsofprey/lochgartenospreynest.asp]Scotland[/url]

      [b]Owls:[/b]
      [url=http://www.pnm.com/cam/reeves_1.htm]Burrowing Owl[/url]
      [url=http://www.cs.csubak.edu/owlcam/camera.php]Great Horned Owl[/url][url=http://www.csub.edu/nsme/camera.shtml]Great Horned Owl[/url]
      [url=http://www.wdfw.wa.gov/wildwatch/live_cams/owlcam.html]Barn Owl[/url]
      [url=http://gargravarr.cc.utexas.edu/owl/views2/sviews.html]Eastern Screech Owl[/url]
      [url=http://www.beleefdelente.nl/steenuil]Little Owl, Netherlands[/url]

      The software here has limitations regarding posting links so I could not provide direct links to the above raptor cam sites. (Please note, I compiled this list some time ago and some of these sites could no longer prove active. Also there are many more sites than these listed.)

      Another very good source of video of birds and raptors in particular is YouTube. There is a particular program that will shed even more recent information on the Peregrine and “speed” is one called Raptor Force. Use the seach feature on YouTube and you can find it. The Internet has made it very possible for stay at home birders to share knowledge and acquire experiences and as citizen scientists provide valuable insite into the natural world. 

  • Joated

    Great photos!

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  • Michael Wolfe

    Video of a Peregrine and a Snowy Owl can be found here: http://10000birds.com/snowy-owl-vs-peregrine-falcon.htm

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