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Snowy Owl Nesting on the Arctic Tundra

Following is a FB post from Melissa Groo, a wildlife photographer who has been working with Denver Holt in Alaska. Melissa is on assignment with Smithsonian magazine photographing Snowy Owls for a story on our climate change project. Melissa describes her experience in this fantastic bit of writing. Follow Melissa on FB to see her incredible body of wildlife photography here:

Iphone shot of the back of my camera this morning, in a blind. A few hours ago, at midnight here in Utqiagvik, Alaska, I walked almost a mile over spongey patches of tundra, waded through kneehigh water, and postholed through still-deep snow in places. I was wearing six layers of wool, down, and silk on my upper half (the uppermost layer a vintage “Eskimoparka” belonging to owl researcher Denver Holt, gifted to him by an Iñupiat years ago), three layers on my bottom half, heavy winter boots, and two wool hats, and hand and foot warmers inserted in gloves and boots. I was desperately hoping that with all these layers to keep me warm, sitting still in a blind in 30 degrees (that felt much colder somehow!), would not become impossible after a short time. Weighted down with a heavy backpack, my camera and 600mm lens in one hand and a tripod in the other, lurching across the uneven ground, I found myself sweating freely in short order, and wondering if I were in my right mind. In the distance I could see the small blind that Denver had set up for me earlier in the day, and, nearby, a pure white male Snowy Owl high up on a telephone pole, keeping watch. He began to bark and hoot at me with concern, as I neared the nest. I finally got to the blind, huffing and puffing, and slipped myself and my gear through the narrow opening. At some distance, maybe 40 yards or so, I could see the nest mound, but no female on it. As I had expected, she had flushed well in advance of my approach. Snowy Owls are very skittish on the nest, and will flush, on average, when a human is at 400 meters (as per a study Denver once did). They are not like shorebirds, for example, that will lift up off their ground nests only when you are almost upon them. It’s imperative to not keep Snowys off the nest, as jaegers and glaucous gulls are waiting for just that opportunity, to swoop in and take the eggs. I had seen that a couple days before, when Denver had visited a nest to count and measure eggs. Jaegers materialized and circled around us after we had been there only a couple minutes. In the blind, I made note of the time, and watched the nest through a lens porthole before setting up my camera gear. If she didn’t return within 20 minutes, as Denver and I had agreed, I would leave and not return. The eggs might freeze or be poached by other birds if the female was off the nest too long. Thankfully, within 5 minutes, she was back on her 7 eggs. For the next two hours, I watched as she peacefully incubated her eggs. She sat motionless for the most part, moving only once to turn her eggs and resituate her body over them. She of course knew I was in the blind and if I made the slightest noise, she looked directly at me. When the sun was out, I could see from the position of the light on her that it was slowly moving across its low path behind me. At times though, a bank of fog would move in and I could barely see beyond the nest; the female snowy seemed encased in a white shroud. All this time, the male never moved from his high post, keeping sentry. What I found fascinating is that he vocalized once, hooting low and insistently—just while she was resettling the eggs. In the time I had with these owls, I felt the tranquility of this place, of the vast windswept tundra all around. The only sounds, Greater White-Fronted geese honking as they flew by, the occasional heavy wing beats of various waterfowl not far above, the song of a Lapland Longspur or booming display of a Pectoral Sandpiper. More than anything. I felt the serenity of this female Snowy and her being, as she drifted in and out of sleep, and I thought about those eggs warm beneath her, and the precious little lives they contained. Could she feel them moving, just a little? A couple days before Denver and I had visited this nest; as he put one of the eggs to his ear, he could hear pipping. It wouldn’t be long now til they were eagerly begging for the lemmings fortunately so abundant on the tundra this year. Finally, I decided it was time to leave. I packed up as quietly as I could, and then looked through the various small “windows” of the blind, making sure I didn’t see any gulls or jaegers around, for my departure was sure to flush the female. I then clumsily extricated my bulky self and all my gear from the blind, and headed back on the long trek to the road. I turned to look when I was about 75 yards away and was relieved to spot her already flying back to the nest. After snatching just a couple hours of sleep, and slightly delirious with exhaustion, I’m on the long way home now. I’ll return to the high Arctic in July to document the next chapter in the nesting cycle—chicks! I’m on assignment for Smithsonian magazine, working closely with Denver and the Owl Research Institute he founded and runs. He has studied the Snowy Owls here (the only place in the U.S. that they nest) for 27 nesting seasons, leaving his home in Montana to live here for 2-3 months every summer. He is a hardcore, classic field researcher that knows the only way to truly know a species is to spend day after day, week after week, year after year, observing and documenting that animal in the field. We need more like him. His knowledge of this species’ natural history is profound and it’s an honor to work with him. As a note: Denver monitors all the nests within a 100-square-mile study area in and around the town of Utqiaġvik (Barrow). He has been given authority over all the snowy owl nests by the native village of Barrow and UIC Science.

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