Bird #347 — Snowy Owl

nyctea (nocturnal) scandiaca (of Scandinavia)

Saturday, January 4, 1992 — 9:55 am

Chicago, Illinois — Meig’s Field — Lake Michigan

When I got up on Thursday morning, I was greeted by an article in the Tribune about an Ivory Gull that was being seen on the lakefront in Chicago.   Since I’ve never had any luck looking for birds in the city, I didn’t feel it was worth taking a day off work to see.  I called the hotline just to see what was going on.  I heard that, in addition to the gull, the lakefront was crawling with Snowy Owls, including one at Meig’s Field, very near where the gull was being seen.

On Friday the gull wasn’t seen, but the owl was still there.  On Saturday morning, I decided to try my luck, figuring that I wouldn’t have to look for the bird, just for birders.

I left home at 9:10 and got down to Burnham Harbor by 9:45.  There was a small group of birders standing by the shore, so I parked my car and asked if the gull had been spotted.  It hadn’t.  I asked about the owl and was told that it was still there on the other side of the runway about a quarter mile walk from where I parked.  As I headed over, I fell into step with two other guys on the same quest.  We talked about our chances and laughed about how easy it was.  We walked to the end of the runway until we were stopped by a barbed-wire fence.  There was another group of four birders there and they pointed to the owl.

The Snowy Owl was about 40 yards south of where we stood.  It stood on the ground a few feet off the runway and maybe twenty feet from the lake.  It was in a strip of tall, dead grass and most of the time it was bent over, apparently picking at something on the ground.  Occasionally it would pull up as if it were ripping at something, but we couldn’t tell what it might be.  The owl would pick for five seconds or so then look up for five seconds or so.  Often, it turned and looked right at us with its startling yellow eyes.  The other guys had cheap binoculars, so I let them look through my scope.  When two other groups of birders wandered up, we pointed the owl out to them, and I let them use my scope also.

The owl was an immature, with black patches spotting its wings, back and head.  It had pure white feathers on the face, chest, nape and a small round patch on the back of its head.  Its small, black bill stuck out from the white whiskers in the center of its face.  It was a beautiful bird, and very large, but something about the location and the ease with which I found it took something from the experience.  I imagine birders pointed it out to each other in a chain all day long.

The concensus among all of us was that we were disappointed that the gull didn’t show, but the owl kept it from being a wasted trip.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the possibility of seeing the owl, I wouldn’t have gone.  I was back home by 11:00, less than two hours after I left.

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