Saturday, February 11, 2012

SNOWY NO SHOWY – FULL HUNGER MOON



        The rising, Full Snow or Full Hunger Moon, February, 2012 Phippsburg, Maine
Corona around the February full moon with reflection across Totman Cove, 2012

This is how the corona is created by moonlight. 

 

Bubo scandiacus
The Snowy owl is also called the Ghost Owl, Tundra Ghost, Ookpik or Uppik (Inuit of Alaska), and White Terror of the North. I have my own name for the Snowy owl, "Avis provocateur."
Photographed at Maine Audubon Society program on owls 2009

     The Algonquin, a Native American tribe from what is now the northern and eastern United States, gave distinctive names to each of the recurring full moons. They did this partially to keep track of the seasons. The January full moon was called the Wolf Moon. Outside of Indian villages, packs of hungry wolves howled at the moon while roving on the cold snow pack. Some tribes called the January moon the Full Snow Moon, but most reserved this for the following moon.
     The heaviest snow usually falls in February, so our second full moon of the year was called the Full Snow Moon.  Harsh weather made hunting very difficult, so some tribes called this the Full Hunger Moon. It sends a chill through me when I imagine what that must have meant for people living so close to the earth. To see the full moon ringed with color must have been especially terrifying.
     A halo or corona around the full moon is an uncommon sight. It can only happen, at most, twelve times a year. Of those twelve times, conditions have to be just right. The effect occurs when rays of sunlight (moon light is reflected sunlight) pass through water in the form of ice crystals or droplets in clouds preceding a weather front.  Native Americans would have known that it meant foul weather coming, too. They would have been able to speculate how long before the snow fell by how many stars were visible between the colored ring and the moon.
      In addition to fear, full moons are traditionally associated with insomnia and insanity, hence the word lunatic. When I worked in hospitals, especially on the third shift, we steeled ourselves for anticipated droves of patients coming into the emergency room. Sometimes this panned out, but often a full moon shift would just be one more, dull, long night. Scientific studies do not support that there is any more craziness taking place on the planet on full moon nights than any other.
     I can say that this January and February I have been driven a little crazy, full moon or not. January boasted one of the greatest shows of Northern Lights on the planet, yet I did not catch one bit of it. I tried. Many nights, I stayed up or got up from bed and went outside to check, freezing my keister off. Like a hungry wolf, I stalked the night sky for the Aurora Borealis to no avail. Then, clouds rolled in for days obliterating any chance of it or a sighting of the full, Wolf Moon.
     Toward the end of January and now, into February, the birding internet has been ablaze with chatter about the greatest irruption of Snowy owls in all of ornithology history. Newspapers and television have carried pieces. Even Joe Average, non-birder knows about the irruption of Snowys by now.
     In addition to outstanding numbers of reports of Snowy owls, we have had a remarkably mild winter. Warm temperature records have been broken all over the place. We’ve barely had any snow, either. Joe Average has been overheard to say that the reason the owls are here is because it’s been so warm.
     But, probably the real reason is because the owls’ food source crashed. In the northern most reaches of the planet, the owls eat mostly small rodents called lemmings. It’s likely that the rodent population plummeted due to disease as a cyclic event. The Snowy owls may have had a really good nesting year, too. More owls with less available food means packing up and heading south for food.  But, I have another theory: The elusive Aurora Borealis and the Snowy owls have all come from the north to drive me crazy. Science may not bear out that the full moon provokes insanity, but I can tell you that personally, it does.
     In my life, I have seen two Snowy owls in the wild. Both times were nearly forty years ago. Each time, I was driving at night through snow storms and alone. Like apparitions, the birds appeared from the darkness and flew in front of my car. Illuminated by the headlights, they looked other worldly, like great, winged ghosts. I was startled and though the car’s heater was blasting, a chill went through me. I was at once filled with wonderment. The spectral birds bewitched me; I’d seen something magical and was hooked forever.
     Four decades later, I’m still hungry for the sight of an ethereal Snowy owl. Escalating reports of the birds ferociously stokes my appetite, too! There have been reports of at least five Snowy owls within ten miles of here. Three different birds have been reported on Popham Beach. That’s so close I can hear the surf from my house.
     I have made many frantic trips over there to find the birds. I’ve staggered out of bed before sunrise, nauseous and haggard, but focused. With neither hair nor teeth brushed, my bloodshot eyes swimming like stewed tomatoes in buttermilk, I’ve raced to beat the sunrise to the beach. I’ve hoped to catch the birds starting their morning hunt, but the only one hunting has been me. No less maddening than the dead end trips is to then read on the birding internet that yet another one has been spotted by some other birder within mere miles. It's left me sleepless and dreaming of Snowy owls. It has, indeed been my Full Hunger Moon!
     Our largest, North American owl, the Snowy stands two feet tall with wings that spread six feet! They are fantastic hunters and are regarded by some as symbolic of bravery. Because they can see in the dark, the Snowy owl of legend is believed to help people to see truths.
     If not brave in my pursuit of this phantasmagorical bird, I am persistent. I share with the owl that I will do what it takes and go where I must to feed my needs. And the truth is, that though sometimes frustrated, I will continue look to the sky for shooting stars, ribbons and rings of light and amazing birds.


For more on the irruption of Snowy owls in the United States, check out this link:
http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/the-winter-of-the-snowy-owl

This blog was chosen as Editor's Pick on Open Salon. It is the thirteenth of my works to be so chosen.

51 comments:

  1. So awesome and beautiful!
    Kris.

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  2. Thank you, Kris. Could not have said it better myself. :)

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  3. Wonder why 'til now I never made the connection to Ookpik Waltz, one of my
    favorite songs.

    Know what you mean about the Owls. They are fairly regular winter visitors
    at Assateague, but for years I would arrive just after a sighting or leave
    right before the next one. Finally got two though a few years ago. Made all
    those $70 off-road permits worth it.

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  4. Thanks, Fred. I'll have to look that song up. I don't know it. I'm glad I'm not the only one on the chase for Snowys, but empty handed. Maybe some of your ultimate MoJo will wash off on me? Thanks for hte read and comment.

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  5. I always learn something here.
    Love your photography!
    ~R~

    M. C. S.
    February 11, 2012 03:46 PM

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  6. MCS, thank you. I love it when people say they learned something, because I always do while I'm doing the research. Best yet, I learn things about myself along the way.

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  7. A wonderful post.. many thanks for sharing it..

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  8. Thank you, Andrew. I never know how these things will go over, esp. when they are complicated. So, I really appreciate your comment and positive regard. Thanks for the read and time taken.

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  9. Hey Robin, I feel your pain...I just got my lifer snowies last month. My understanding is that the lemming cycle actually hit its high point last year, causing many more chicks to fledge than normal years. I suppose this population "excess" has caused birds to move further south to find uninhabited hunting grounds...but who knows if this is true, because I saw 10 Snowies sharing one tiny area!

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  10. Great post. My quest for the Snowy continues too! The other day I randomly took a drive out to Reid State Park to bird...secretly hoping for a Snowy of my own. Skunked again. The next day the post came out on the listserv with that amazing photo of one taken the same day I was there. The universe toys with me over the Snowy, but gave me a raft of sleeping red-necked grebes instead that day to be thankful for. For once I'm worried winter will end before I'm ready!

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  11. Oh how I could wish a snowy owl in your yard !!!
    bmc

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  12. Your full moon photos are breathtaking and remind me of one of my favorite movies, "Moonstruck." I learned so much from your post that I never knew. I also enjoyed your beautiful Snowy Owl and narrative...I can actually visualize you and your experience that snowy night.
    HG

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  13. You are definitely a 'woman on a mission' Robin. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading about your nocturnal and early morning ventures out in search of your prey! I must say your experiences of seeing the Snowy Owls while driving at night must have been both chilling AND thrilling! I hope so much that you get your wish and sport one soon, the right time and the right place and all that!!

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  14. Christine Geery (OS)February 12, 2012 at 9:13 AM

    Nothing but beautiful pictures and writing. R

    Christine Geery
    February 11, 2012 05:26 PM

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  15. hyblaean- Julie (OS)February 12, 2012 at 9:15 AM

    beautiful....more?

    hyblaean- Julie
    February 11, 2012 05:45 PM

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  16. Love owls of all kinds. Sort of obvious, right? Couple of hopefully helpful things.

    Owls are the most successful of all raptors. They see in the daytime as well as eagles do in the daytime, which is about 10x better than a 20/20 sighted person. At night, they generally can see 8x better at night than a person can in the daylight.

    Being kicked out of the nest is a phrase that is most commonly associated with owls. Most owl young literally have to be kicked out of the nest to fend for themselves. Typically they will sit there, at the base of the tree, who-ing to be picked up and let in -- even though by now they are capable of flight! Until they get really hungry. They'll decide to go get something to eat, start flying and once that occurs, they'll become independant.

    Cool huh?

    As to your sighting woes, allow me this as a suggestion:
    1) Get out a paper map and some push pins. If you have different colors, great.

    2) Use different colors to track the progress of the sightings during different weeks.

    3) If you have access to historical (for this migration, clearly) data, you should be able to get an idea of two things:
    3A) How far the owls are migrating each week; and/or
    3B) Where their favorite sites are.

    4) You should now be ready to go find some Snowy Owls.

    Wear good camoflage clothing if you have access to it. They see really well, remember, you'll be spotted a good ways off and most owls are pretty skittish around people. The camoflage will help reduce your "peoplish" look, especially if you take care to remain as quiet as possible and move very slowly, keeping cover between you and the owls. I would include some form of head covering that is also camoflage, the head/shoulders area is the most distinctive part of a human outline.

    Bring a nice (though not heavy) pair of binoculars. If they can see you from far away, don't you think you should have the same advantage? I carry them with me most of the time.

    It's worth it if you can catch just one Snowy Owl on camera.

    I loved those Moonrise Photos. Good luck in your quest to get a photograph of a Snowy Owl. I'll put a good hoot in for you with my kinfolk.
    --r--
    dunniteowl
    February 11, 2012 06:16 PM

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  17. Your photography amazes and draws me in. The thought of your frozen starving keister on a luckless owl hunt is sad!
    I have a little owl who greets me with a swoop each night as I come into the lane to the house. Just a blur of wings, an impression of friendly guardianship.
    dianaani
    February 11, 2012 06:19 PM

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  18. Thanks for the images and the background stories. I have always admired the moon and that owl is amazing. R

    Trudge164
    February 11, 2012 07:35 PM

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  19. What a gorgeous moon, Robin! Thanks for the essay on the winter moons and the snowy owl...a 6-foot wingspan is pretty incredible! I can just imagine they looked ghostly, appearing in front of your car on those snowy nights.
    clay ball
    February 11, 2012 07:50 PM

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  20. I had no idea they were so big! Beautiful work.

    C Berg
    February 11, 2012 08:57 P

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  21. Although I'm far south (and west) of you, I managed to get a snowy owl photo this winter. What a privilege! Keep searching; they're worth it.

    High Lonesome
    February 11, 2012 09:07 PM

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  22. Beautiful! This was the moon last Tuesday night? I saw it out our ninth floor studio window, and stopped class so we could all go look at it, a big orange disc low in the sky, exactly like your pictures show.

    Good luck with Snowy Owl! I have seen one, like you, many years ago, and have never forgotten. Have seen a number of great horned owls in the wee hours of cold February nights. They are cool, but not quite the spectacle that is a snowy. Who cooks for you?!

    greenheron
    February 11, 2012 09:41 PM

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  23. Jonathan Wolfman (OS)February 12, 2012 at 9:24 AM

    magnificent r.

    Jonathan Wolfman
    February 11, 2012 09:57 PM

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  24. Birds and circles, circles and birds...

    Kate O'hehir
    February 11, 2012 10:13 PM

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  25. Outstanding! To day the least
    You do great work.

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  26. Robin, Robin….

    You have become a “master” nature photography and journalist. I so much look forward to viewing your latest efforts! It’s probably time for you to consider “doing a book.”

    Larry

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  27. The answer to the full hunger moon…Let them eat clams!

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  28. Hi Robin,

    REALLY NICE PIX! I enjoyed your story about the moon and owls very much!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Ellen

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  29. For all the rates and reads and comments, deepest, heart-iest thanks to you all! Dunnitowl, I'll employ some of those strategies today. I'm on my way to hunt, and it's only 10 degrees with a stiff westerly wind. Brrrrrr! And for the rest of ya that HAAAAD to tell me of the Snowys you have just seen, well..........gloating is very bad form you know! :) I'm happy for all of yaz. Honestly. But, very jealous in the worst possible "Real Housewives of...." sort of way, too.
    That you are reading about the one I didn't get, "the one that got away" if I were a fisherman telling stories, gives me strength and will to continue on. Now THERE'S drama!

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  30. Beautiful post!
    Awesome photos of the moon and the Snowy owl, I'd love to see one.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Have a great day.
    Greetings Mette

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  31. Corona ... I love that words. And the Snowy Owl, I love the legend you mention ...they help us see the truth.

    Scarlett Sumac
    February 12, 2012 11:09 AM

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  32. thanks Scarlett. Corona is a great word. Pretty good with a wedge of lime in the bottle, too. :)

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  33. Robin, I feel for you! these birds are so amazing! I have seen 3 so far this irruption. I though I would never see this bird but now I have and I truly feel blessed. They do not scare me at all. I just think they are beautiful! I hope all your diligence pays off and you finally get to see one before this winter is over and they all fly north again!

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  34. Margaret McPherson (FB)February 12, 2012 at 3:03 PM

    Margaret McPhersun commented on your link.

    Margaret wrote: "The last time I saw a Snowy was in the mid 80's in South Portland Maine at the voc. tech campus. I don't remember the time of year but do remember how beautiful it was and so very large. I just hung around the campus for the day sitting on the roofs of several buildings. I felt quite amazed and fortunate to have seen it and hope it won't be the last time in my lifetime! Nice article, I will never look at the corona the same again!"

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  35. Robin, you've been away for a while - were you in pursuit of the snowy owl? Thank you for the beautiful photos and the information. I bookmarked the link. I love owls although haven't seen one close up. I also look for shooting stars.
    R♥
    FusunA
    February 12, 2012 04:06 PM

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  36. I saw a snowy owl about noon last Sat. when on the east bank of North Creek. It was in flight being harassed by 2 crows.
    I hope the owls are feasting on lots of red squirrels!

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  37. Debbie Miller commented on your post in Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp.

    Debbie Miller
    11:48pm Feb 12

    Great title for this post ... incredible moon!

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  38. You are in good company. I read in Art Wolfe's blog that he had gone out over the weekend trying to find Snowy's and he also struck out. They don't normally get this far south so we don't have the opportunity to photograph them although one was supposedly spotted in eastern Missouri a couple of weeks ago. Here one day and gone the next.

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  39. Sarah Cavanaugh (OS)February 15, 2012 at 9:42 AM

    Simply stunning and delightfully informative. I was on an early morning walk in the country once when a barn owl flew right in front of me. I was thrilled.

    Sarah Cavanaugh
    February 13, 2012 03:16 PM

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  40. Chrissie Prissie (OS)February 15, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    So now you're running around at night? Beautiful pictures are your (and our) reward.
    "bloodshot eyes swimming like stewed tomatoes in buttermilk". Love it.
    Missed seeing and reading your work.

    Chrissie Pissie
    February 14, 2012 06:22 PM

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  41. Beautiful photographs of the snowy owl, large wingspan indeed!
    workstudio
    February 15, 2012 11:58 AM

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  42. I haven't see any either Robin, which is very unfair. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

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  43. Gary and Boom, I'm so very sorry to hear that, truly. I really feel your pain very deeply. Tell ya what: if I get one, I'll call you so you can come see it right away! Okay?

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  44. A little bit in common :

    http://open.salon.com/blog/alsoknownas/2012/02/06/a_rare_migration_snowy_owls

    and

    http://open.salon.com/blog/alsoknownas/2011/06/28/sun_halo


    alsoknownas
    February 15, 2012 02:21 PM

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  45. Thank you ... for all ... of this ...

    anna1liese
    February 15, 2012 02:34 PM

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  46. I love your blogs - education and great visuals. Again, some of these are still jigsaw material. Rated with a Jali smile of course. :-)

    JALI 17
    February 15, 2012 04:39 PM

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  47. Amazing photographs. Your passion for nature and the pursuit of the snowy owl is palpable. Rated.

    Erica K
    February 15, 2012 05:24 PM

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  48. Truly a post that needed no photographs, so beautiful and descriptive is your narrative.
    You have got the hunger!
    ;-)WBW!

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  49. I love owls, and snowy owl is my favourite! Great post!

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  50. Beautiful photos and a fabulous read!

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  51. This is so beautiful!

    floridawendy
    February 17, 2012 11:25 AM

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