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To Glimpse a Rare Visitor, Scan the Treetops

Not a lot happens on our country lane on a quiet, winter Sunday morning. So when I glanced out the window after my first sip of coffee and saw a giant, white bird gliding to the top of a nearby tree, I froze in my slippered tracks. It was unlike any bird I’d ever seen: enormous, graceful and blindingly bright. It sat quietly on its high perch and took in the scene.

I know now that it was a snowy owl – a rare visitor to our part of the world. But I didn’t know it then. We woke up as many children as we could (one preferred to sleep the sighting out), grabbed the binoculars, ran outside and gawked at it for the better part of an hour. In an attempt to identify it (“Um,” asked one sleepy child, “Maybe it’s an albino pterodactyl?”), we consulted a field guide for the birds of Connecticut. But it didn’t appear. Then we tried to snap some smartphone photos but they all came out looking like the avian equivalent of a 1970s UFO sighting.

My husband suggested it might be a snowy owl. That seemed like the right bird, when we searched for pictures online. But a birdwatching friend in the Adirondacks was skeptical – snowy owls don’t fly down to Connecticut or southern New York, she said

But they do, at least they do this year. The New York Times recently ran a story about the sudden “ irruption ” of snowy owls, south of their normal habitat– giving us all a rare chance to see this beautiful bird.

I emailed our websites’ resident wildlife expert, John Hannan, director of development for Greenwich Audubon , to learn more about these magnificent snowies and why they’re down here. Naturally, they’re looking for food.

There are always a few snowy owls wintering in our area, he says, usually on the dues at Jones Beach, N.Y. or the marshes of Milford or Stratford, Conn. The grasses give them the cover they need to hunt rodents, small mammals and even ducks.

In the Arctic they live largely on lemmings. Every few years the lemming population explodes, which allows snowy owls to fledge more strong and healthy young than usual. Then winter comes. The older owls take over the northern feeding spots they discovered in earlier years. The young keep moving south until they find a place of their own, where they are not harassed too much by crows and other territorial animals.

The biggest danger to snowies in the suburbs are the things they’re not used to: cars or electric wires, which they hit when they swoop down for prey, or disturbance by humans when trying to rest. If you spot a snowy, Hannan says, follow the basic ethics of bird watching by keeping a reasonable distance (about 100 yards).  Bring binoculars or a scope so you can see the bird in all its fine detail.  Move quietly and slowly.

This mesmerizing owl is about two feet high, with strong, feathered talons and broad wings. Females and juveniles are white with some brown barring. Adult males are almost pure white. My family (at least, those who woke up) are among the lucky ones to have seen it. You might be too, if you keep your eyes on the treetops. It’s an experience I will never forget.

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