Late in 2018 local headlines revealed a secret guarded since June: a Snowy Owl had been spending a season in the Capital Region. Considered a “lifer” by most birders, the neglected horse pasture lined with white fencing near a medical complex where the owl was rumored to inhabit was soon populated with people carrying giant lenses and scopes eager for their opportunity to observe and photograph this rare visitor.
Not above the excitement, Kevin and I went out on a crisp sunny December afternoon hoping for a glimpse. The owl wasn’t there but a woman who worked at the nearby YMCA came out to where we were to post no-trespassing signs around us. I had walked down a gravel/grassy drive that was apparently off-limits, and was clearly not the first one to have done so. In fact, the woman explained someone had actually chased the owl with their vehicle down that driveway recently and another person had set out a Have a Heart trap. This woman had appointed herself the little owl’s security detail and immediately threw the trap away. She told us she’d first spotted him in June and had been partnering with the local Audubon chapter and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to monitor the unusual resident, who would typically spend summers farther north. This amazing woman has for months been collecting the owl’s pellets for scientists trying to understand more about why Snowy Owls have been seen more frequently in Upstate NY and how they’re surviving when they are here. She pointed out the areas in which we could walk, which were quite generous, and gave us a tip that he’d been spotted at a nearby cemetery as well.
A full week after we started our search we were rewarded. The paparazzi were out this overcast January morning, 4-5 of us arriving around the same time, and we found our local celebrity perched prettily on his usual line of fencing, obligingly tolerating the chirps of humans pretending to be prey and the eager clicks of cameras as he swiveled his head around. We were even treated to his aggravated screech as a crow dive bombed him a few times and then loudly protested the owl’s presence from a nearby treetop; crows and many owls are mutually predatory so the crow’s protest of its presence is understandable.
Not so for the human harassment toward this rare and lovely visitor. The allure of this creature is not just its beauty and rarity, but also its wildness. Terrorizing it with a car, capturing it, disrespecting the sanctuary of its habitat – all these things not only threaten the owl’s life, but also threaten to extinguish the wildness that attracts us to it to begin with. This is one of the things I love about our work in The Marshland. It allows us to capture the essence of wildness through images and words while leaving the wild thing itself whole, intact, as it was meant to be.