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Almost, a Welcomed Surprise

The dustings from most previous storms, and atypical warm conditions, and storm paths that have gone around our southern Wisconsin farm, have left us in an extended “fall or spring-season-like trance”.  Fields of standing upright plant stalks blow and shake in the wind, brown, gray and straw colored. Finally, after much of the winter without winter-like conditions, Stone Prairie Farm is under a blanket of deep snow. Usually, the first heavy snows arch these stems to the ground. We long for the annual blizzards, the howling winds, snow moving horizontally, sweeping by the windows at race-car speeds. These are the times we move closer to the windows, the woodstove, and on forays outdoors to feel the excitement of the energetic storm. We listen to the thrashing plant stems, ten to fifteen foot tall stems of big bluestem, Indian grass, prairie dock and others whipping each other into tatters. From above, these stems are swinging wildly through circular motions, figure “8”, and irregular patterns. Where they touch the ground, patterns of this energy play out in wind renderings. The story of each plant stem and where they thrash against the snow covered ground speak to the direction and force of the blowing wind. This winter season, year 2012, is special in other ways—beyond the delayed arrival of winter. This is the year that the winds have delivered the “great white owl”, from the arctic tundra to Wisconsin and other  lands, with some reports  as far south as Texas. This is the aptly named “Snowy Owl” a nearly 2 foot tall bird and wings of over five feet that carry this bird as smooth and light as a feather over the rolling landscapes of the arctic and where it ventures on this southern Irruption. This Irruption appears to occur for different reasons every couple years. One year, lemmings (the principle food of Snowy Owls in the Arctic) are scarce in the arctic and the owls move south, following the snow line in pursuit of food. During other years, food has been overly abundant and the nesting success and production and successful rearing of hatchlings and juvenile owls during the short arctic growing season overwhelms the availability of food during the fall and winter. Again, one way or another in pursuit of food, the owls  are carried south on the Alberta clipper winds with south moving cold fronts originating from across Canada, the Yukon, Alaska and elsewhere. Then, mysteriously, Snowy owls are observed across the northern tier states of the US. First sightings of owls perching on runway signs and light standards occur at airports, where the expansive grassed landscapes may resemble the arctic tundra to the owl. Then birds start showing up in urban neighborhoods and many other locations, including on the front covers of many newspapers around the country. At Stone Prairie Farm, we’ve maintained a listing of the animals and plants that live here or have visited.  Anyone keeping such lists is always on the look-out for the next species, including rare discoveries. As we have converted our farm from corn and soybeans and pastures that used to support dairy cows, to prairies, wetlands and restored streams and savannas, our lists have been growing rapidly. Not only do the lists include the planted species, but also the many plants that have appeared perhaps because seeds have been blown in, or more likely they have been carried here attached to the fur or feathers of wildlife drawn to the restored habitats. Many plants produce berries and other fruit (e.g. think raspberry and blackberry) eaten by birds, raccoon who later visit and defecate, dispersing seeds. Plants dispersed in this manner are now flourishing here. We wish for the “signal” and reassurance provided by the visitation of rare species. This tells us this restored landscape is now attractive enough to lure in such species. When the first sand hill crane landed and spent several days foraging in our prairies and wetlands we were beside ourselves. When wild turkeys started daily forays from a neighboring woodlot to our prairie and savanna restoration we knew Benjamin Franklin was right, these are smart birds. How else would they have found our restoration, which sites as an island out here in the corn and soybeans of neighboring farms? We’ve been hoping for an appearance by a Snowy Owl.  I able to report this almost happened. It still may.  One Saturday morning, Susan and I were driving a mile or so north of Stone Prairie Farm, when she announced that “there’s either a white plastic bag, or, a Snowy Owl sitting in the neighbors Bur oak tree”.  I asked, “Which is it” and she replied, “I’m pretty sure it’s a Snowy owl”.  With this assertion, I turner the car around and back we drove. Sure enough!  Sitting on the very tallest limb, on a branch that arched higher than any other on the majestic Bur oak tree, sat this owl.  It was scanning the neighboring snow covered farm fields, occasionally getting swept off balance by the high winds.
Snowy owl

Snowy owl

It would alternate between trying to balance with its wings outstretched and then pull them abruptly snug to its fluffy white body to stabilize.  Through our binoculars we could see its black talons tightly gripping the limb. After some time we had to continue on our trip and left the owl. But, not before we snapped a few photographs.  Unfortunately, even though we’re inclined to do so, we can’t add this rare species sighting to the lists we keep for Stone Prairie Farm. We rationalized that perhaps we missed it and that it had already visited our farm.  After all, we are away part of the day at work and may have missed it. Keeping such lists doesn’t allow an “almost” to be added to a list of other certain and confirmed sightings.  We experienced the welcomed surprise of this owl’s visit in the neighborhood. This is good enough for us, for now.  Now we await the owl that truly visits Stone Prairie Farm.