It’s been quite a December for birding enthusiasts in West Virginia. The appearance of a snowy owl in Preston County has the state’s bird watching community flocking north.
“It’s extremely rare. The last time I saw one was about 35 years ago in Harrisonburg, Va.” said noted state photographer and bird watcher Steve Shaluta. “I was living in Grafton at the time and I drove with some bird watching friends from Grafton to Harrisonburg just to see this owl.”
Earlier this month, Shaluta got a message from another birdwatching friend about the visitor from the north spending his days hunting a field in Preston County. Shaluta took a personal day from work, grabbed his camera gear, and set a course up I-79 and east on I-68.
“It was just outside of Bruceton Mills on one of the back roads. I probably could have found him on my own, but it would have taken me several hours. He took me right to him,” said Shaluta. “He was just sitting on a pole and he stayed there all day. He never left an area about the diameter of a football field.”
The snowy owl is an arctic bird and a daytime owl. Typically they live on the tundra, but every once in a while they’ll have a large lemming and the young owls the following year will strike out in search of food.
“The young birds come south looking for food, this one happened to come a little further south than normal,” Shaulta explained. “He was in the perfect spot, it was open farm land and as long as he’s finding something to eat, he’s going to stick around.”
Shaluta watched the owl for almost eight hours and observed him take down pigeons, field mice, and various other rodents. The owl would swoop in for the kill, eat, then return to his sentry on the fence post to spy for his next meal.
Older members of the species are almost solid white, the barred black stripes led Shaulta and other birders to determine this visitor was a young male. There was some concern about predators since his white coat against the snowless backdrop made him an easy to spot target, but at night the owl roosted on high utility poles and spent his days hunting on the shorter fence post on the field’s edge.
Birders have been keeping the back roads near Bruceton hot this month in hopes of catching a glimpse of the rare creature. It was a lifetime achievement for Shaluta who considered traveling to Minnesota last year upon learning of the appearance of a snowy owl there.
Shaulta laughed he clicked off more than a thousand pictures of the honored guest, but sadly only about 20 were decent shots and of those only one or two were extremely good. Despite getting as close as 150 feet he lamented not having the equipment necessary to capture intricate details of the bird’s feathers.
It’s one more off Shaluta’s bucket list, but there are many more out there—although it’s doubtful some of them will ever wind up in his viewfinder.
“Yeah, but they’re extinct The ivory billed woodpecker would be the one I’d really like to see and photograph,” he said. “There’s always several out there, but that would really be the top of the top.”
Although Shaluta took the snowy owl pictures for his own personal enjoyment, like everything he does, he has copies for sale to anyone interested.