The white ghost
Capturing the elusive and enchanting Snowy Owl on the lens is not an everyday phenomenon. Cloaked in pristine white, our author was held in absolute spellbinding awe when he came across this mysterious bird on his recent sojourn. And the images surely convince us that the Snowy Owl – popularly nicknamed Hedwig due to the fantasy fiction series of Harry Potter – is every bit magical as we have all heard it to be.
For me, the unforgiving cold meant that my eyes had already begun to water. As I hustled my hefty lens, he suddenly turned his head my way and I was at once mesmerised by the pair of golden-yellow eyes staring at me. The near-perfect camouflage of the Snowy Owl’s striking white plumage was already beguiling enough and this is the first time I experienced what the words enchanting and bewitching stood for. His retinas held in them memoirs of open snow-lands and before I came to terms with reality, his eyes had done a whole lot of talking.
Snowy Owls are long-lived birds and live on an average for up to 10 years in the wild
I was fortunate to meet this northern bird of prey, although it may not be peculiar to meet one of them whilst on a post-Christmas trek in these parts. I felt absolutely blessed after my spell-binding encounter with this owl and as an afterthought, I was reminded of the ‘White Owl’ brand of cigars that had a Snowy Owl as their mascot. It made no sense to me. How could an animal so serene and perfect be used to endorse cigars? If we could only acquire some skills from this bird, could we justify the phrase – ‘as wise as an owl’.
Know the Owl :
The Snowy Owl is a well-known bird species and one of the several ones described by Linnaeus in 1758. It is closely related to the horned owls in the genus Bubo, but some ornithologists place it in a genus of its own, Nyctea. With its large yellow eyes and pure white plumage, the owl is unmistakable. It weighs between 1.6-3 kgs and has an impressive wingspan of 125-150 cms. The adult male is virtually pure white, while the female and young birds have dark scalloping.
Unlike most owls which are nocturnal, the Snowy Owl is diurnal, hunting both by day and by night.
The Snowy Owl has a circumpolar distribution in the Arctic, but is a nomadic bird, migrating as the population of prey species fluctuates. They prefer open areas compared to wooded ones and nest on the ground, usually on a mound or a boulder, which enables good visibility of the surrounding area.
Their breeding period and clutch size depend on the availability of prey. A total of three to eleven eggs can be laid – one egg every other day, over a course of several days. Five weeks later, the eggs start hatching asynchronously. Although both parents participate in defending and caring for the young, generally, only the oldest chicks survive.
The Snowy Owl primarily preys on Lemmings, but the opportunistic predator will prey on a wide variety of animals ranging from mice and voles to raccoons and other owls. Adult Snowy Owls have very few predators, but young ones are preyed upon by the corvid and canid species. As a result, nesting owls are very watchful and equipped to defend their young against larger animals. The species is classified as Least Concern on account of a large distribution range and healthy population, but the numbers are recognized to be decreasing on account of habitat loss and climatic change.
This article was originally published in the April 2015 edition of Saevus magazine