Saturday, January 29, 2011

Snowy Owl sighting in Northern Illinois

This is probably the best of my photos of the Snowy Owl as it flew in an arc about 50 yards away, Ogle County, IL; 1/29/11.
"I'm so glad; I'm so glad; I'm glad; I'm glad; I'm glad!" These words were appropriately blaring on the radio from WNIJ's  "Weekend Blues" program by the old 60's-70's rock band, Cream (with Eric Clapton), as I was returning from seeing my first Snowy Owl in the wild.

We interrupt our normally scheduled program of "Birds in Mexico" that I have been blogging about for the past few weekends, to bring this news flash. - "A Snowy Owl has been sighted in Ogle County, Illinois" (near the town of Freeport (about 30 miles west of Rockford). It's been there for about a week, but on Saturday, 1/29/11, was the first chance I had to be able to drive out there to see if I could spot it, and I was hoping it would still be around.

Okay, how did this start?  I was interested in trying to find some Snow Buntings that are winter residents in Northern Illinois so I looked up on http://birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/IBET.html to see if anyone had reported sightings of Snow Buntings in my area. Well when I received the page of bird reports from Illinois, I saw that a Snowy Owl was reported hanging around an area not too far away from Rockford (where I live). Now I just blogged about Snowy Owls after I visited the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago three months ago (see my post from ...  http://northernillinoisbirder.blogspot.com/2010/12/snowy-owl.html ),
... and wrote that it is rare to see one below the Wisconsin/Illinois border. So I am excited to learn of this sighting, and after reading a few entries from birders who have been watching this particular Snowy Owl, it is stated that this is the first Snowy Owl sighting in over two years in our area.  Cool!

I noticed that a lot of the sighting entries were about 3-4:00 PM. So I decided that I would leave Rockford about 2-2:30 PM and make the hour drive to the site, and was hoping that there would be other birders already there so I would not have to do a lot of hunting - others would have done the hunting for me. As planned, I left Rockford at 2:30 and in slightly less than an hour, I turned onto Route 72 where the Owl was spotted, I knew I would have to drive at least two country blocks to where most of the sightings have been occurring. Sure enough, there were at least a half dozen cars pulled over to the side of the road and people were outside their cars aiming cameras and telescopes out into a vast snow-covered, harvested cornfield. Being a logical person of deductive reasoning, I decided this was the place. I grabbed my camera and got out of the car and asked the first person if the owl is visible. He pointed out into the cornfield.  I have a Canon Rebel T1i with a 250mm zoom lens, and by far had the smallest camera of anyone there, in fact most of the zoom barrels on the cameras pointing out into the cornfield were easily 4-5 times bigger than mine. I made no excuses and put my camera on "Sports Mode" and "Manual focus" and trained my lens in the same direction as everyone else. The sky and ground were of the same white color, and I assumed the Snowy Owl wouldn't be much different. I could not spot anything that looked like an owl, so I decided to zoom in make a sharp focus and just start taking photos panning from left to right. By the time I focused in on my 4th picture, I spotted some movement on the ground and there she was - the Snowy Owl! I refocused and took several pictures. The person next to me said it's been sitting there for quite sometime and was apparently feeding on a mouse that she caught.  Even with my zoom all the way out, the owl was just a tiny grayish/white spot in my viewfinder and I knew that I would be hard-pressed to get any kind of quality photo. So I snapped away, hoping at least one might be clear enough to be note-worthy. None were (Below).
Can you spot the Snowy Owl? This is what it looked like with my camera completely zoomed in. I know - time for a new lens, if I want to become a truly good bird photographer, Ogle County, IL; 1/29/11.
The same Snowy Owl photo cropped. As you can see the quality is still horrible, Ogle County, IL; 1/29/11.
The Owl stayed put and motionless for 5-10 minutes, and I was thinking, "I came, I saw, and I left," and was ready to hop back in the car to leave, when suddenly the owl took off flying left (west) and then turned and started flying toward me. I quickly put my focus on automatic and located the flying bird in my viewfinder and using the "burst" mode, I fired off as many pics as I could (At Top of page and Below). The Owl turned around about 50 yards in front of me and flew back to its original location in the corn field.
As the Snowy Owl turned to fly back to its place in the cornfield, you can see that it has a mouse captured in its talons, Ogle County, IL; 1/29/11.

One of my friends who I used to teach with at Rockford Auburn High School also was at the site earlier in the day and took a few excellent photos of the Snowy Owl as it was perched atop of a telephone pole along Rt. 72. John has a better lens than I, and the Owl was closer to the side of the road when he took the photo (Below is a link to his wonderful picture of the same Snowy Owl.)...

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mesquakie8/5396930069/

I never considered myself a hard-core birder - but more of a "birds are interesting and trying to get their photgraph is a challenge" type of birder. However, now that I drove over 104 miles in about 2 hours to get a picture of a blurry white bird, does that put me in the category of a serious birder? I am not sure, but I do know that I agreed with Eric Clapton singing in the car on my way home, "I'm so glad; I'm so glad; I'm glad; I'm glad; I'm glad."

7 comments:

Eddie (Birdfreak.com) said...

Awesome sighting! I haven't had the chance to look for this beautiful bird. What a thrill to see and photograph!

jon said...

Thanks, Eddie, nice to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

Just had a sighting this morning; first Snowy Owl I have ever seen in my 36 years of living in Illinois! There was a trucker who had stopped along the road as well to watch it. It was on a fence in Rochelle, IL but flew off after some Crows pursued it. It did land in a lot close by, but I was unable to get a good picture with my blackberry given the considerable distance. Magnificent animal, and a true blessing to see one!

Jon said...

Snowies are so much fun to see. If the bird you saw are different than others, this would make at least a half dozen different sightings in N. IL and S. WI already this late Fall. It might be a good year for Snowies. -- Jon

Anonymous said...

Saw my first sighting in champaign county tonight. Was worried the bird may have been injured since it remained in the same location for two hours. My husband went back out to check and it was gone. I wish I would have gotten s pic! Awesome experience!

Tim Michael said...

Hello all,

I just spotted a Snowy Owl in Mchenry county this morning, Jan 30, 2012. It was flying northbound, low and slow across Rt. 176, a mile or so west of Rt. 47. I was able to pull over to watch it and I had a very good view of it at a distance ranging from about 200 feet to as close as 25 feet for a
full 30 seconds before it dissapeared into the trees. Absolutely beautiful
animal! Couldn't get my cell phone with camera out quickly enough - darn! Other birds of prey I have sighted in this area include Great Horned owls, many Red Tailed hawks, an ocassional largish falcon
(Perigrine, perhaps?), American Ketsrels and other hawks that I have not been able to positively identify.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing...great story and great pictures! I just starting birding this winter and have seen 2 great horned owls and i think a barred owl? I would love to see one of these! :)