The light was quickly fading and there was a light drizzle. A female Snowy Owl sat, treed in a solitary spruce alongside the road, her eyes locked on the pigeon in our trap a couple hundred metres away. Her body shifted gently as the wind buffeted her about her perch but her head didn't move.
A pickup truck motored by and the bird lifted off her perch and far into the field.
"That will happen ten more times" Amanda said.
There is some skill involved in finding one of these owls but catching one of them is a whole different ball game. Prior to this, my banding experience has only been passive banding in mist nets. Amanda had been trapping and banding these birds as part of a project lead by Nigel Shaw. Besides being a popular bird amongst photographers and birders, from a scientific perspective, the Snowy Owl is a fascinating and surprisingly little-known animal and one that warrants further study. The movements that this species stages are relatively poorly understood, and people like Nigel and his crew are helping to slowly piece the puzzle together - their condition when they arrive, the age and sex ratio of the irruptives, and if they are ever recaptured - where they ultimately end up.
This in part has dispelled the popular notion that these birds move south only during poor lemming years and are "starving" upon their arrival here. In fact, many of these birds are perfectly healthy and in good condition. There are certainly years when birds arrive in an area in bad condition, but this is certainly not the standard.
The next day, we were out again. As we arrived closer to the study site, we were greeted by strong winds and snow - not the ideal conditions for catching a Snowy Owl. I must admit, I was beginning to lose hope of seeing one of these things in the hand.
We found a female sitting in a field pretty close to the road, but she was not interested in the trap, perhaps because of the howling wind. It was getting dark, and though Snowy Owls are often cited for being diurnal hunters, when they are in a place where they experience nighttime (i.e - not the high arctic in the summer when they're breeding) they tend to be like their cousins and hunt more actively then - getting off the ground and choosing higher perches like posts and trees.
In the fading light, we saw a male bird sitting on a tantalizingly low post - a perfect place from which he could see our trap. As we pulled up to drop the trap along this more-or-less abandoned, pothole-ridden concession, we noticed somebody walking their dog towards the owl. Hadn't this guy read the Ontario Birds Facebook?? It was almost dark, the wind was howling, it was about ten below and there was snow.
"This does not surprise me at all."
After the dog walker passed us and flushed the bird up to a television antenna, we could finally put the trap down - upwind of the bird, because they like to fly into the wind. As I went to spin the car around, a large truck was coming down the road and had to wait about 30 seconds for me to do a 1000-point turn. I had to almost go into the ditch to let him pass and he gave me a dirty look.
"Welcome to raptor banding."
The bird was being tossed about by the wind but his head was locked onto the pigeon. Suddenly he took off and headed for the trap. He was flying into the wind but gaining lots of speed - the fastest I have ever seen a Snowy Owl fly save for one I saw last year pursuing a Starling. He stooped, almost like a Peregrine and hit the trap. He did not come back up.
I started yelling bad words and started the car, and we pulled up to the bird. Amanda grabbed him and removed him from the trap, but not before he managed to grab one of her fingers. I've pulled Boreal Owls off of myself before, and they were tiny and that was difficult. This would not budge. There was absolutely no give, and I was using both hands. We kinda had to slide the bird off but fortunately it had not penetrated too deeply - otherwise there could have been some problems.
I held the bird as Amanda got a wing measurement from him, aged him, and equipped him with a steel band. He bit me in the face at one point while this was happening.
"Not a lot of people can say that they've been bitten in the face by a Snowy Owl."
Having a bird in the hand gives you a chance to see some of the things about it that you've only read about. In Russia when I was a kid I knew this bird as the "Bearded Owl", and the thick, hair-like feathers around the base of the bill made it obvious why. The tarsus was so thickly feathered that it was difficult to see the toes and where to put the band. The plumage was incredibly dense, like a duck more so than an owl. The eyes were enormous and clear. In the dim light of the inside of my car, the birds pupils minutely constricted and dilated as he looked at me and Amanda. What has he seen with those? Polar Bears? Ivory Gulls? Who knows. It was wonderful to think about.
When we were done, we took the bird behind the car out of the wind and I lobbed him into the night. He flew off and resumed his post.
It was awesome.