Back to the Wild: A snowy owl’s journey

(Photo courtesy of Meredith Gilbert, Ohio Division of Wildlife)

About the end of last June, a male snowy owl was hatched out of a nest on the sub-Arctic tundra in the Ungava Bay region of northern Quebec, Canada, some 1,400 miles northeast of Ohio.

On Wednesday, Jan. 17, the young bird was released from a month’s captivity in a Castalia rehabilitation center at Pickerel Creek State Wildlife Area along Sandusky Bay in northwest Ohio.

The release was witnessed by more than 100 individuals – I counted the gathering, three times. The parking lot was jammed, looking like drawing day for duck blinds. The folks who braved 15-degree air temperatures and a wind-chill of around zero, on short notice, witnessed the flight of this great white-winged predator. It was almost a religious experience.

The young snowy was found Dec. 5, hopelessly snarled in ball-of-string-filled trash near Cleveland. A call was made to Back to the Wild, the well-known wildlife rehabilitation center in Erie County, and the bird soon was ensconced in the clinic there. No bones were broken, but the bird’s struggles to escape its entrapment caused some soft tissue damage, according to Heather Tuttle, the center’s manager.

A couple of the center’s associate veterinarians oversaw the bird’s recovery, and it soon was placed in an outdoor flight cage. This week it was ready to head, well, back to the wild.

It is an amazing thing to witness how, in this digital day and age, folks so quickly learn of such events (Facebook, Internet, etc,). It is amazing that so many braved the coldest day of the week to witness such a magnificent Arctic predator, up close and personal. It is amazing that we humans have so littered and trashed the landscape – our own nest – so widely and mindlessly that birds like this owl become potentially fatally entrapped.

On release from Tuttle’s grasp, the owl quickly lofted its way over a bayside Pickerel Creek marsh unit into a bright, sunny, cloud-dabbled winter day. It perched about 150 yards off, atop a dead cottonwood. Tuttle told the gathering to kindly give the bird some space and peace and quiet to sort itself out, again, alone and wild.

Back to the Wild takes pains not to give “pet” names to its patients, or otherwise anthropomorphize them or create a nonsensical petting-zoo circus in its serious business – to its great credit.

Check out BTTW at https://www.facebook.com/BacktothewildOhio/about. Think about helping out with a donation. Go and see what they do. They achieve minor miracles on a shoestring budget with a host of volunteers. At least one juvenile male snowy owl, a winter visitor from the Arctic, in its own way is thankful. It is alive, and hunting.

This winter has witnessed an outbreak or “irruption” of snowy owls into the northern United States, including Ohio. Another occurred four years ago, according to Jim McCormac, of Columbus, a well-known, top-notch naturalist and nature author.

“I’ve heard of probably 35 or so owls statewide this January, and even more were reported back in December. A rough estimate without delving into researching all records might be 70 or so birds reported in Ohio this winter. The origin of these birds – all of which have been juveniles – is the Ungava Peninsula of the Quebec Arctic, east of Hudson Bay – the same source as the 2013-14 irruption,” McCormac said.

He said that the population of lemmings, a small arctic rodent, hit a peak in that part of Quebec last summer, allowing for an excellent breeding season for owls. So, a high number of juveniles were produced, and these are the birds that come south in search of food.

“As evidence of how tough snowy owls are, the preferred wintering grounds are on the tundra, where many of the adult owls remain. While our Ohio winter weather has been fairly brutal at times, it at its worst would be fairly balmy up there, and conditions are usually far worse than anything we’ve seen down here,” the naturalist said.

He noted that the snowy owl irruption of four winters ago spawned a research effort called Project Snowstorm, which studies the habits and movements of these owls. Visit that site at https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/. Contact McCormac with snowy owl sightings at jimmccormac35@gmail.com.

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