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The Great Snowy Owl Challenge of 2013

posted by Jeff Bilsky at
on Monday, January 13, 2014 

Around Christmas every year, I fly back to Chicago to see my family. I am the wayward, westerner and they all still live in that area. There are many things I look forward to about this trip. Seeing family and friends, drinking full strength beer with ease and of great variety, deep-dish pizza, Portillo's Italian beef, Chicago Blackhawks hockey games, the Chicago skyline, and of course, the birding. As the days towards my trip approached this year, I checked out the Illinois birding list-serv (IBET) and just like seemingly the rest of the country East of the Mississippi, Illinois is exploding with Snowy Owls. The question was not only will I have a chance to see one of these Arctic guests, but how many.  Knowing Kenny Frisch was headed back East for the holidays as well, I jokingly threw down the smack talk. The Great Snowy Owl Challenge of 2013 was upon us. I forwarded Kenny a post from IBET showing the 8 owls that had been seen in a single place along the Chicago lakefront within days of my imminent arrival. He fired back with a dozen or so that had been seen in an area in upstate New York. Of course it was all in fun, and we both knew that seeing any Snowy Owls would be great.

Lake Michigan shoreline and Downtown Chicago from above

I arrived on December 23rd and landed at O'Hare airport. A couple of Snowys' had been seen there so I kept my eyes peeled from the airplane window as we taxied to the gate. My imagination began turning distant white dots into owls.

Is there a Snowy Owl out there? O'Hare Field, Chicago

My parents live in area north of the city, out in an a region that has lots of forest preserves, lakes, and streams. The suburban wilderness is different than Utah in how managed it is. Here, you can wander into the mountains and camp pretty much anywhere. Try that in the "closed-at-sunset" preserves of Cook County, Chicago area, and you're liable to get arrested and certainly some strange looks. Their backyard is adjacent to a thick wooded area and a small stream and like me, they enjoy watching the birds that visit the area. They have put out a number of feeders and always have a good variety. One bird that caught my eye during this visit was a nice red Fox Sparrow.  Also of interest, they got lots of American Tree Sparrows at their feeders and many of the other "usual" midwest birds.

A Red Fox Sparrow was a great close up sight

American Tree Sparrow

 Cardinals are regular feeder visitors in Chicago

After a couple of days hanging around the house for Christmas, it was time to really go after the Snowy Owls. So over to the Lake Michigan shoreline we went. We figured we'd go to one of the more reliable spots that they had been seen recently: Montrose Harbor. This place is well known for its birding - especially in the spring. Its location places it smack dab in the middle of many birds flight paths. 

The Montrose Harbor pier

On December 26th, this is where I headed out with my mom and my sister, Sarah, in the bitter Chicago cold, around mid-morning. However, we were told by some other birders that Snowy Owls hadn't been seen since the early morning hours. Despite this unfortunate news, we enjoyed some other birds in the area including a late, early, or otherwise just hardy Savannah Sparrow. 

A Savannah Sparrow in the snow on 12/26/13

Red-breasted Mergansers abound in the frigid Lake Michigan waters 

Like I said: frigid

So we struck out on Snowy Owls on 12/26, but as I always say, birding isn't supposed to be easy. So not to be denied, I decided I'd wake up even earlier the next morning, catch the sunrise, and catch the owls. I realized that Montrose is a high traffic area with numerous pedestrians, dogs, and other nuisances that would send most humans looking for solitude, running for cover, not to mention hungry Arctic wildlife who have probably never witnessed the Chicago lakefront chaos. So the early morning hours seemed like a key success point. 

Lake Michigan Sunrise 12/27/13

As we approached the pier on 12/27 (just my Mom and I for this trip), I saw two things that immediately caught my eye. The first was a man talking to himself, waving his arms, and stumbling around on the icy surface. The second was a large white and black bird that was within feet of the man and clearly not interested in getting any closer. The terrain was such that I had to dip down a bit in order to walk up onto the pier to get a better look. In that short moment between the loss of vision and the return to it, the bird was gone and the man was walking back towards the shore. I later learned this man was one of those city dwellers who talks to those who aren't there, urinates where and when he wishes, and is otherwise best ignored. Luckily, my 2 years living in New York City taught me (out of self preservation) to expertly spot this behavior and I kept my Mom and I at a safe distance at all times. However, WHERE WAS THE BIRD!? A scan of the surroundings and a camera at 40x zoom soon revealed the answer in a distant form on the ice. This was a rather unsatisfying look but at least we had our answer. 

My first Snowy Owl of 2013 We watched for a bit but you really couldn't see much. So what now? Well, luckily a short while later, and a walk to the North revealed another interesting form, this time much closer, and on the piles of ice along the shoreline.

My second Snowy Owl of 2013

It was another Snowy Owl and this time we felt like we'd be able to get a good look. We soon found another group of birders and photographers who were watching and we joined them. It was interesting as we all watched from an extended distance out of respect for the bird while dog walkers and their dogs walked right past it. At one point I saw a dog get within probably 15 feet of the Owl and the Snowy looked at it, uninterested. It occurred to me that this bird is used to dealing with Gyrfalcons and Arctic Foxes so perhaps a domesticated canine is not worth its time to worry about. We stayed for an hour or two and were able to watch the Snowy, make some friends with local birders, and enjoy the beautiful Chicago lakefront. The other Snowy Owl even flew back in to the pier at one point and we got much better looks at it. Kenny saw way more Snowy Owls than me on his trip to New York, which he will be blogging about as well, but when you see even one of these amazing birds, I think you should consider yourself lucky. Below are some additional pictures I was able to capture of both of the birds, and some reminders of what you can see at the intersection of wilderness and humanity. 

Oblivious dog walkers were everywhere

The "urban" Snowy Owl doesn't care

One of the few times the Owl seemed to show any alertness as we watched

Very photogenic birds

The first bird flew back in to the pier and provided some good looks

This was just weird. Solo Polar Bear club? Chicago. Never Boring.  

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