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.

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  • Joan

    Steve Shaluta and Lejay are fellow leaders on the West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage held at Blackwater Falls State Park in May. Although I am a botanist, most tours going out each day include a bird leader and bird enthusiasts. Steve is usually the official photographer for the Pilgrimage.

    • ignorant bystander

      Love the Wildflower Pilgrimage! Best tour ever for novice and/or experts. I have my mugs on a shelf in my office to admire from my old leader days.

  • KJVB

    What were the bird watchers looking at today on Cecil Wampler Road in Mt Crawford?

    • KJVB

      It has been confirmed... a Snowy Owl.

  • ignorant bystander

    Great story and comments! Awesome to see bird watchers and hunters alike appreciate this rarity.

  • Fed Up

    Great story Chris keep up the good work and Happy New Year to you..

  • wvtd

    I have been told that every few years when their food source becomes scarce that they will migrate south for better hunting. the assateague island alliance facebook page have some great information on the surveys they are doing on this species of owl along with great pictures and video.

  • Palmetto

    I live in Charleston, SC and they have been spotted in the Charleston area in the last couple years. In addition, they have been spotted on the beach on Tybee Island in Georgia. According to folks at the University of Clemson, changes in weather and habitat we're seeing these beautiful birds migrating to much warmer climate. They love wide open areas for hunting and the beaches are a good place.

  • WVcoal

    When I saw the article's title: "A Rare WV Visitor", I thought it was an article about Manchin.

    • wvtd

      hoo, hoo is that? LOL

  • RW

    I have seen two owls like this in my life. One was in Greenbrier County at Lake Sherwood it was muzzle loader season. The other was in Wyoming County. He showed up in December two years ago. He stayed real close to our home that winter. The last time I saw him was the first week of spring gobbler, haven't seen him again.

  • Charlie

    Several years ago while on a spring turkey hunt in Harrison County with my son, I called in a large white owl. At the time I thought it was an albino until 2 young ones showed up. They were also white. We watched them for about 10 minutes. Is it possible these were snowy owls? We never saw them again.

    • Chris Lawrence

      Absolutely it's possible.

  • GregG

    Back in the mid 80's while hunting in Ritchie County, I saw one of these. But like may other things I have seen, I just kept it to myself because I didn't want to hear the ....."Your crazy". At first I thought it was an albino owl, but after putting my binoculars on it, I seen it wasn't an albino. Very beautiful bird. Sure wish I would have had a camera. I watched him/her all morning.

  • Allegheny

    I have seen 2 of these owls in WV over the years. Both times were on Dolly Sods near the Bear Rocks overlook. The most recent was about five years ago or so during a rare period of little snow cover on the ground during the late hunting season. Beautiful birds.

  • leroy j gibbs

    We have a barn owl in our neighborhood. Killed every cardinal at my feeder

  • mineralcounty

    I live in mineral county but hunt in mt.storm in grant county. I was hunting during muzzleloader season and actually saw one of these birds. My hunting partner and I were amazed when we saw it. Didn't realize it was this rare until reading this article.

  • SamWvu304

    I'm a resident of Bruceton. was wondering if i could get an email of the location of the owl? Id like to see him myself . I frequently travel the backroads in the area and haven't seen him yet. Thought id try and see him since it sounds like the only opportunity and he's so close to me now. thanks..and thanks for the good story .keep up the good work.

    • GrammySue

      There was an article in the Morgantown Dominion Post that the "snowey" was spotted in Clifton Mills in Preston Co.

    • Harsh

      Our farm had the pleasure of hosting this beautiful bird. My son first spotted him November 30, unfortunately we haven't seen him since December 12th. We wish he would have stayed the winter. How can I get word to you if he'd happen to come back?

      • SamWvu304

        @Harsh thanks. for the info. Ive since found out. and guess my daughter got to see it,thts the reason i was looking for it anyway.but thanks again.

  • WhgFeeling

    That's pretty and awesome!!!