Photographer snaps pic of rare snowy owl in West Virginia

January 8, 2014


A young male snowy owl flew 4,000-plus miles from the Arctic tundra and landed in Beckley during the last week or so.
On Sunday, photographer Steve Shaluta awoke from his St. Albans home at 3:30 a.m. and drove an hour and a half in the winter darkness to find the little fellow — a relative term as the birds can have a 4- to 5-foot wingspan — and capture his image.
Using patience and tenacity he has cultivated as a bird watcher and a lensman for the West Virginia Department of Commerce, Shaluta spent about six hours driving and walking around the area until he caught sight of the raptor — a type rarely found this far south — hanging out near the Cranberry Creek Shopping Center, which, in spite of its nature-like name, houses shops and restaurants.
“I started photographing at 1 or 1:30 and I left going on 5,” Shaluta said. “I stayed there the whole time. He would move a bit. You’d look for different movement or look for him to do something different. Sometimes he would open his eyes. He didn’t open his eyes a lot. His eyes are bright yellow, so you want to get his eyes open.”
Through birding websites and Facebook pages, others were alerted to the snowy owl’s location and descended upon the area to take a look. Shaluta called his friend, Steven Rotsch, the governor’s photographer who happened to be in Beckley that day, and he joined the group that at one point swelled to 40 to 50 people who wanted to observe the visitor.
For his part — birders could identify his gender and age through the amount of brown on his otherwise white feathers — the snowy owl remained nonplussed at the attention and continued to perch atop a car dealership. The watchers remained at a distance and observed him through binoculars and telephoto lenses.
“We didn’t make him nervous,” Shaluta said. “He knew we were there and he ignored us. He preened himself and cleaned himself. He was observant and turned his head around. In one of the few shots I got with his eyes wide open, something in the field behind us, he saw something that caught his interest and his neck went up and he was trying to focus on something in that field.”
In spite of the rarity of a snowy owl in West Virginia, the Beckley bird actually is the second one Shaluta has seen in as many months, a somewhat astonishing feat considering that before that, he had not seen one for about 35 years, in Virginia.
The other snowy owl sighting took place in November and December in Bruceton Mills, observed by, among others, area birder LeJay Graffious, a friend of Shaluta’s that he visited.
“The one in Bruceton Mills, it was on farmland, very isolated,” Shaluta said. “It was a perfect area for a snowy owl. At first, he was on a telephone pole and then he flew down on the ground. Then he flew on a fence post and stayed there the rest of the day.”
Although North American owls might be more inclined to stay perched in a tree, the fact that that snowy owl lay low made sense.
“The Arctic Circle is the normal habitat,” Shaluta said. “That’s where they stay, on the tundra. That’s why you see them on the ground or real low. They are used to sitting on a pile of rocks or on the ground.”
In spite of distance of the bird’s natural habitat, snowy owl sightings this far south actually have not been uncommon lately.
“If you Google ‘snowy owl 2013,’ you get a lot of hits,” said Sue Olcott, a wildlife biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources District 1 in Farmington, which covers several counties including both Harrison and Preston, where the first recent snowy owl sighting took place.
The reason, according to Olcott, can be traced back to the last snowy owl breeding season, which went well because the area had plenty of lemmings, or small Arctic rodents, on which to feed.
“So they produce a lot of chicks and those chicks fledge and grow up,” Olcott said. “Then there is not enough food in the wintertime and they head south to find food. The adults kick them out of the territory.”
The “irruption,” a birding term that means the entry of birds into areas where they do not usually live, has been “unprecedented,” Olcott added.
“There has been a report of one north of Jacksonville, Fla., which is mind-boggling,” Olcott said. “Off the coast of Newfoundland, people counted 100 in one day.”
Mike Book of Enterprise, founder of the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Bunner Ridge, expressed doubt that a snowy owl would fly all the way to Florida, however.
“I would have to see one to believe it,” he said. “I realize birds have wings and technically I could see a flamingo up here, but it’s more likely that I would win the lottery.”
However, he added, in 1976, he and two other biologists saw another Arctic bird, a gyrfalcon, along the Ohio River near Point Pleasant.
“We reported this to Brooks Bird Club and they would not accept our findings.”
Graffious, vice president and past president of Mountaineer Audubon, past chair of the West Virginia Bird Records Committee and past president of the Wheeling-based Brooks Bird Club, does not believe the snowy owl he saw near his home in Bruceton Mills and the Beckley bird are the same.
“It’s most likely a different one,” said Graffious, who noted the Bruceton Mills snowy owl was first sighted right after Thanksgiving and last seen on Dec. 12. That’s about two weeks before observers started to report sightings of the bird in Beckley.
“There has been one seen across the border from Preston County in Garrett County, Md., and I suspect that might be the same bird.”
Jim Phillips, retired naturalist at Pipestem Resort State Park, has helped keep track of the snowy owl in Beckley. Prior to this one, he said, there had not been a sighting that far south in West Virginia that he knows of since 1929 in Mercer County.
He saw the bird around the same time as Shaluta and reports similar behavior as the photographer.
“He was snoozing and just kind of soaking up the sunshine,” he said. “It didn’t seem that we were stressing him out. This is something you have to be careful of. They are coming south to get food.”
Olcott agreed and warned anyone who sees wildlife to avoid getting too close to the animals.
“It’s exciting for us here, but don’t get too close to them,” she said. “These guys are living on the edge. If you’re trying to get close for that special shot, you might force them to use energy that they have in short supply. So people should be very respectful and view them at a distance — I’d say 50 or 60 feet. It’s part of what is called ‘birding ethics.'”
The recent subzero Fahrenheit temperatures should not be a problem for the Arctic-bred birds, Phillips added.
“He would thrive as long as there was food available,” he added. “Around the shopping center, there are lots of starlings and house sparrows and pigeons. I’m sure he can get some of those. Rats and mice and muskrats are mammals so they have warm temperatures.”
Bird lovers might want to consider putting out extra food for other breeds because of the cold, however, said Ron Perrone, of the Three Rivers Avian Center in Brooks, near Hinton, noting that he put out four suet cakes Tuesday for native species.
“Songbirds can take a hit,” he said. “Their bodies are so small, if they don’t fill up on food the night before, they can freeze to death.”
Three Rivers Avian Center has helped track the Beckley snowy owl, placing information on its Facebook page and posting a video on its website,
Also, Graffious noted, birders can follow the general snowy owl irruption through a different Facebook page, called Project Snowstorm.
As for Shaluta, in spite of his recent snowy owl sightings, he hopes to see more.
“When there is snow, you see them fly over snow and catch something running,” he said. “They swoop down and get it. That’s what I’d like to do, shoot them in the snow when flying, getting ready to eat something. If you stay there seven hours, you might find that.”