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Snowy owl makes rare visit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia has been visited by a rock star.

Well, not really, but based upon the recent flurry of attention centered on one solitary snowy owl, one might think so.

The big white bird, native to the Earth's arctic regions, showed up in northern Preston County around the end of November and quickly created quite a stir. For almost two weeks, birders flocked to a back-road intersection near Bruceton Mills simply hoping to catch a glimpse of the creature.

Rich Bailey, an ornithologist with the state Division of Natural Resources, said snowy owls only rarely venture into the Mountain State, and only under unusual circumstances.

"It's called an 'irruption,' a movement of a species far outside its normal range," Bailey explained. "Snowy owls are being seen all over the northern United States right now because they're in the middle of one."

Snowy owl irruptions occur when lemmings, the owls' primary food source, are especially abundant. All that food causes female owls to lay huge clutches of eggs and raise large broods of young.

Lemming populations follow a boom-and-bust cycle, and when the population goes bust, owls are left with little or nothing to eat. So they venture south, often hundreds of miles, in search of prey.

The first birder to report the Preston County owl was LeJay Graffious of Bruceton Mills.

"A birder friend in Rowlesburg told me a friend of hers had photographed a snowy and posted it on Facebook," Graffious recalled. "It had been seen one ridge over from some appropriate habitat near Aurora, so I went there to look for it.

"I didn't find it, so I came up into the northern part of the county. I was scoping a northern harrier when a boy went by on a 4-wheeler. He told his parents, who had been students of mine, that 'the bird man' was in the yard. They came out and asked if I'd seen the white owl."

Armed with his friends' directions, Graffious went out early the next morning and found the owl.

"I wanted to post the sighting to WV-BIRD, the Audubon Society listserv for birders in the state, but I was afraid the landowners would be inundated with people coming to look at the bird," he said. "So I asked the landowners if they minded me posting it. They said no, so I posted it."

Birders from all over the region rushed to Bruceton Mills to see the owl.

Joe Hildreth, who lives in Grafton and works in Morgantown, drove more than 40 miles out of his way to observe it.

"I spent a day searching areas in Taylor, Marion and Harrison counties, looking for an owl of my own," Hildreth said. "I didn't find one so I made the trip over to Preston County."

Only one other birder was present when Hildreth arrived, but he knew dozens had been there the day before and dozens would show up afterward. "I'm not surprised [by the number of people]," he said "Snowy owls always attract lots of birders whenever they're found. They're quite majestic birds."

Mark Eanes of LaVale, Md., heard about the bird from some co-workers.

"We took our children over to see it," Eanes said. "The two oldest ones knew about snowy owls from the Harry Potter movies."

It wasn't a quick or convenient trip.

"It was a 45-minute drive each way. When we got there, the owl was feeding on something it had killed. It spent a good while sitting there and just munching."

Several observers reported seeing the owl make kills. Several others observed it feeding. Ornithologist Bailey said the bird would probably stay in the area as long as it could find easy prey.

"Then when winter ends, it will probably head back to the Arctic," he added.

Though most owls are nighttime hunters, Bailey said snowy owls are most active during daylight hours. That trait, combined with their size, their snow-white feathers and their tendency to perch atop fence posts and telephone poles near open fields, makes them relatively easy to spot.

Nan McDaniel of Charleston was pleased to find the owl so visible.

"Once we got there, the bird was easy to spot," she said. "It was a gray day, so it really stood out. It was sitting about 125 yards away, on top of a fence post."

McDaniel and her husband, Perry, were headed for Washington, D.C., and decided to make a quick side trip off Interstate 68 to see the owl.

"We were thrilled. We're not experienced birders, and the owl was a great 'life-list' addition for both of us. It was really exciting," she said.

According to the WV-BIRD listserv, the owl was last seen Dec. 12, about 11/2 miles from the farm it had been frequenting. Graffious estimated that during the peak of the owl-watching fervor, eight to 15 people a day visited the area to see it for the first time, or to keep tabs on its activity.

"I was also getting two to three e-mails a day from local folks trying to figure out what all the fuss was about," he said. "It's been fun."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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