Getting up close with snowy owls

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

FAIRBANKS - As Ron and Mary Teel stood in the snow earlier this month studying the snowy owl sitting 10 feet away at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, they had a hard time concealing their excitement.

"You can see the frost on its nose above where it breathes," whispered Mary, looking at the bird through a pair of binoculars.

"And on its eyelids," replied Ron in a hushed voice as he stared at the bird through a 300 millimeter camera lens, snapping picture after picture.

The black-and-white striped bird with an all-white face just sat in the snow, looking almost like a zebra.

At times, it looked like the owl was sleeping. Only occasionally did it open its eyes enough to see the distinctive yellow eyes owls are known for.

The Teels, avid birders, were alerted to the owl's presence on campus at UAF by friend Nancy DeWitt, executive director of the Alaska Bird Observatory in Fairbanks. The Teels have lived in Fairbanks for 33 years and this was the first snowy owl they had seen.

Snowy owls nest in the tundra on the North Slope and are routinely seen in Barrow, but the birds rarely dip into the forested areas of the Interior.

"They're such completely open-country birds that we don't see them around here very often," said Dan Gibson, the bird collection manager at the UAF museum. "They may slip through here on a fairly regular basis in the fall but they're probably moving from dome to dome. ... It's been almost 10 years since I've seen one (in Fairbanks)."

Snowy owls are seen more often in Anchorage than Fairbanks. An Anchorage Fish and Game biologist recently netting a malnourished snowy owl that was taken to the TLC Bird Treatment Center.

Like the Teels, several other local birders jumped at the chance to see a snowy owl. DeWitt visited UAF with her husband, Jim, to check the bird out with a pair of binoculars.

"This is a lifer," DeWitt said, referring to the "life lists" many birders keep, on which they list every bird they've seen. "A lot of birders have that top on their list they want to see and the snowy owl has been on my list for a decade."

Snowy owls are the largest of Alaska's four owls, slightly bigger and blockier than a great-horned owl. Their main source of food is voles and lemmings, though they will also kill snowshoe hares, grouse, ptarmigan and waterfowl.

"They're pretty heavy-duty predators," Gibson said.

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