Searching for Hedwig, the Snowy Owl

In December 2011, my grandmother gave me a newspaper clipping that mentioned the abundance of Snowy Owls in Montana and other “southern” states this winter. The closest I had come to a Snowy Owl was when Hedwig made her appearance in the Harry Potter films, so the idea of seeing one in real life was thrilling. I called Denver Holt, of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, to ask if he would lead an Audubon trip to search for Hedwig and her cousins. Denver was enthusiastic, and he generously offered a second trip after over seventy people signed up within two days of posting the announcement on Facebook and email.

The Mission Valley was sunny and gorgeous the weekend of January 21st and 22nd, despite the dismal forecast of bad weather and driving conditions. Denver led us through a maze of back roads just south of Polson. He stopped near a subdivision, jumped out of his vehicle, and had us focus our optics on several white lumps atop the snow‐capped roofs. Success! We peppered Denver and his field crew with questions: “Why are they sitting on houses?” “Are their eyes always yellow?” “What do they eat?” “Do they face any threats?” “Why don’t they come here every year?” “How can you tell the males from females?” “Do they live in groups?” “How far south do they go?”

Once everyone had a good look at the owls through a scope, snapped a few pictures, and had every question answered to their satisfaction, we drove off to look for hawks. Rough‐legged and Red‐tailed Hawks were abundant. Denver stopped the caravan at several spots to allow us to set up scopes on individual birds. Bald Eagles made a few star appearances while crows and ravens tried to steal the spotlight from all—to no avail. We got a nice look at a Prairie Falcon, and someone saw a Gyrfalcon‐‐but that one eluded the rest of us. The Gyrfalcon is a desirable sighting, because it is the largest of the five falcon species in Montana—females are about two feet long, with a wingspan of four feet.

We demonstrated our support of the local economy by eating lunch afterwards at Ninepipes Lodge to chat with Denver and get to know the other trip participants. Eleven people signed up for Audubon membership and received a Snowy Owl plush toy—as well as satisfaction that they are helping to conserve birds, other wildlife, and their habitat. It was a magical weekend, and if you missed it, you can still search for Hedwig on your own—just look up Snowy Owl sighting locations on eBird to find potential viewing areas.

by Rebecca Richter

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