Solstice greetings! On this, the darkest day of the year, the augur emerges from the templum to dispense her midwinter wisdom. Here in the United Sates, it’s a banner season for those avian symbols of wisdom, the owls–snowy owls, to be exact. Snowy owls spend their summers in the midnight sun of the Arctic Circle, making a living off the local lemming population and moving south in the winter as needed when their food sources dry up. This year, the owls have been migrating south in spectacular fashion in what is termed an “irruption,” or in birder parlance, a “flight year.” There have been snowy owl sightings as far south as the augur’s home turf of North Carolina.
How the augur interprets this influx of these beautiful birds depends on one’s point of view. To birders, it’s thrilling. The augur herself wouldn’t mind laying eyes on one of these magnificent creatures. But to the snowy owls, this flight year is a matter of life and death. Snowy owls face the same migratory challenges of less “charismatic” bird species, including flying into contested airspace around airports–the scrubby landscapes apparently reminiscent of their tundra home–not to mention actual airplanes. Owls who have attempted layovers at JFK airport in New York have been subject to the shoot-on-sight approach to bird strike management. Fortunately, other airports, such as Logan in Boston, have partnered with Audubon to develop a non-lethal trap and relocation program.
Away from airports, we can hope for more peaceful encounters with snowy owls. In fact, midwinter is an excellent time for owling. (By owling, I mean birding specifically aimed at owl-watching. The augur does not wish to see your Instagrams of you and your friends perched in unnatural, albeit vaguely comical settings.) One of my favorite aspects of the darkest time of year is walking my dog on crisp, clear winter evenings. Earlier this winter (assuming you mark the start of winter with Samhain on November 1), I often heard barred owls calling who cooks for you? from nearby woods. On one or two magical occasions, my headlamp caught the reflection of round, glowing eyes in the darkness–one blink and the creature possessing them was rendered invisible. (Here, the augur wishes to remind you not to deliberately shine your light directly at owls or use flash photography in an effort to capture the encounter. Bright light can temporarily impair their vision and make them vulnerable to injury.) On one especially fortunate evening, an owl glided silently past my dog and me, mere inches separating us. If there hadn’t been a bit of daylight remaining, allowing me to catch a glimpse, I’m not sure I would have even known he was there.
Not all owls are nocturnal, of course. The snowy owl is mainly active during the day, and other owl species are crepuscular, that is, active at dawn and dusk. Even with daylight on your side, your chances of seeing a visiting snowy owl vary, depending on where you live. You can experience the vicarious thrill of this year’s irruption here, thanks, as always, to the folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Tomorrow, we wake up on the other side of the line that divides night from day, slowly tipping the scales toward the lighter side. Why not make the most of the longest night by staying up late–or getting up early–for a little owling?
The message of the birds for December 21, 2013: Embrace the darkness on our terms, and give us room to fly.