A couple of weeks ago, I was reading my email and saw that the ABA’s (American Birding Association’s) rare bird alert included a snowy owl in West Virginia (http://blog.aba.org/2013/11/rare-bird-alert-november-30-2013.html)! How exciting! The beauty of homeschooling our children is that we could take off that afternoon and go see a bird of rare beauty for these parts!
The kids were worried and excited as we loaded our binoculars and camera, snacks and water into the car. Would the bird still be there? Does the farmer mind people stopping to look? Where would we play? I explained the etiquette involved in this sort of bird watching as we picked up Jeff from work to set out on a little adventure!
It was only about a half hour drive away. Upon arriving we immediately spotted the bird. It’s large size and white plumage sets it apart from anything normally seen in this part of the country. There was only one other car parked along the side of the road and farms all around. We pulled over and got out to get our own look.
Willa and Jon each have their own pair of binoculars and after a little fiddling with them they managed to get their eyes located on the snowy owl. The other birdwatchers there had a spotting scope that allowed the kids (and us!) to get a closer view. As the bird perched on top of the utility pole it gazed watchfully over the fields, looking for its next meal (obviously we need a better lens for moments like this!).
That is likely why it is here at all. Snowy owls will move out of their normal range and habitat on northern fields and tundra when lemming populations crash and their food source becomes more limited. Thanksgiving week there were two sightings in Preston County, West Virginia and one in the dunes on the coast of North Carolina! Imagine going to the Outer Banks and seeing a snowy owl!
After we all had a nice look at the bird just sitting there, the kids quickly grew bored and wanted to play in the car. It wasn’t long before Jon was behind the steering wheel, laying on the horn, a big no-no when watching rare birds! Fortunately the owl didn’t flinch and thankfully the nice couple with the spotting scope only chuckled. Since there was nowhere to play (but in the street) we decided maybe we had reached our limit of birding with the kids.
The next day we completed the impromptu lesson on snowy owls by reading from 3 different field guides, one of which I highly recommend for kids entitled The Young Birder’s Guide (http://www.amazon.com/Young-Birders-America-Peterson-Guides/dp/0547440219). The fun facts in this book are a nice feature to keep it light. While I read, the kids colored and cut their snowy owl dioramas, the plans for which I found here – http://www.fws.gov/alaska/nwr/arctic/pdf/popsobw.pdf. As I read and they struggled, I realized I needed to put down the books and really help them along. Turns out it is a fairly difficult activity for very young children! They turned out very nice in the end though, and as I cut and glued and they colored we had a nice discussion about lemming populations, other possible prey items, range, geography, habitat, coloration and camouflage as well as general geology of the rugged peaks of western mountains versus the rounded hills of the Appalachians we are so used to seeing. Here is how they turned out.
I absolutely love that our schedule is so flexible and we can spontaneously take advantage of these wonderfully teachable moments that connect us with the natural world around us. The rhythms and cycles of which we would be strangers to if not for the ability to stop long enough to see the likes of the snowy owl!
Read more about this year’s snowy owl irruption at these links: