Yellow Diamonds in Snow

Snowy Owl eyes from Voice of America blog
Snowy Owl eyes from Voice of America blog.

We arrived in Cumberland County last Saturday just after 2 pm.  The sky was overcast but the sun still managed to cast a soft golden glow over the rugged landscape.  A cold, stern wind  tore relentlessly across the bare corn fields and scattered rocky outcroppings.  Ignoring the pungent smell of freshly spread manure, upon closing my eyes I could imagine I was in the unforgiving arctic landscape, alone in the wilderness in search of two precious yellow diamonds in the snow.

As we approached the intersection of Mud Level and Duncan Roads, my heart skipped a beat (and I began yawning a lot- presumably my brain trying to prepare my car-cramped body for the chase!)  I began excitedly scanning the barren fields for the ghostly figure we were seeking while watching the road ahead for a caravan of birders parked on the side of the road, Yellowstone-style.  Suddenly, there it was!  A blazing white figure in the middle of the umber colored field.  Deftly snapping my binoculars up to my eyes, I could just make out the…”Oh,” I sighed as my heart sank.  “It’s just a plastic bag.”

Birders viewing Snowy Owl on Mud Level and Duncan Rd, Cumberland County, PA.
Birders viewing Snowy Owl on Mud Level and Duncan Rd, Cumberland County, PA.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for my hope to be restored.  Just around a bend in the flat road were a hoard of cars parked askew and eager birders perched against the wooden fence with all array of scopes, camera equipment, digiscope adapters and binoculars.  We parked along the road and cast our binoculars in the direction of everyone else’s, and much to our wondering eyes did appear but a miniature white figure in the treeless distance!  Less than 1/4 mile away sat a living glimpse into the arctic tundra.

Cumberland County Snowy Owl as viewed through a scope.  Note:  I am an amateur digiscoper!
Cumberland County Snowy Owl photographed through a scope. Note: I am an amateur digiscoper! (I could see the owl much better than this with just my eye and the scope).

Looking through the scope brought the creature’s stoic majesty into clear focus. A pure white cloak draped over two feet of muscle and bone.  Aside from the quick movements of his neck as he often and mindfully inspected his alien surroundings, he was as still and silent as the polar night as he sat in solitude.  The wild yellow diamonds in his snow-white face pierced my soul as he scrutinized me several times from afar, probably seeing the details of my face as well as I was seeing his through the scope.  It felt as though he was reading more than just the details of my face.  The intimacy and severity of his gaze stirred something unfamiliar in my core, awakened some wild ancient sense, connected me to the earth’s energy beneath my feet, and somehow made me more aware and compassionate of the human lives around me.  As I breathed in the cold sharp winter, I imagined inhaling the elemental exhale of the owl…   inhaling truth, light, serenity and life.  I was renewed by the reflection of those rare yellow diamonds and a breath of the arctic, of all that is pure and beautiful and sad and terrifying.

The owl stretched out his long wing once and we could see his power.  Then he opened his beak while tenderly preening his luscious coat of feathers, and we glimpsed his vulnerability in the bright pink of his mouth.

As we were heading back to the car, the sun’s rays broke through the somber clouds for a peaceful moment of satisfaction and gratitude.  We gazed back at the Snowy Owl, now bathed in the beauty of the light, and I found it hard to fathom that  the comfort of the sun’s rays is something this bird does not know for weeks on end.  What is the light and the hope that carries him through the days of dark?  Perhaps that is the secret behind his mysterious yellow eyes…Perhaps they are enigmatic pools of stored sunlight eternally preserved as  yellow diamonds in snow.

If you’d like to have your own once-in-a-lifetime Snowy Owl experience be sure to track the local sightings on the PA Birding List website.    This is also a great place to go to discover other interesting and sometimes rare bird sightings (especially in winter) in PA.  You’ll find that the PA birding community is quite an avid fellowship; with at least a dozen birders posting on the site everyday, this is certainly the place to go for up-to- the -minute updates.

Unfortunately, much to the frustration of birders all over the state, the latest postings on this listserv (Feb 2)  reveal that a “birder” with an attitude of entitlement waltzed into the Cumberland County cornfield and approached the Snowy owl at a disrespectfully close distance.  The owl, which had been sitting there peacefully for the past month, took off into the distance and has not been seen since.  This is a real shame for all the birders who may never get a chance to see the owl again, or any Snowy Owl for that matter.  Even more grievous is the fact that the bird was forced to expend extra energy and endure added stress in now having to locate a new field in which to feed for the remainder of this winter.

Disturbing these long distance migrants is a BIG NO NO since the reason they are here in the first place is often starvation.  Hunger caused by unpredictable or unreliable food sources is what draws them south from their northern haunts in the first place.  Birders are encouraged to enjoy the birds from a respectful distance but should always be mindful not to crowd the bird and thus force it to use energy it does not have.

New birders are always welcome to the ‘sport’, but it is their responsibility to inform themselves of the rules and code of ethics as they would with any other sport.  The American Birding Association has a nice summary of birding ethics, which is handy for all bird lovers to have at their fingertips.

Snowy Owl (from
Great Horned Owl
Even though the Snowy Owl has no visible ear tufts, it is thought to be closely related to our familiar Great Horned Owl.

This  Snowy Owl invasion, which is the biggest documented in the entire history of ornithology, has been causing quite a stir all over the nation.  The reason for so many Snowy Owls coming south from the Arctic this winter is an abundance of lemmings (their favorite food) this past summer on the tundra breeding grounds, which led to greater breeding success for the owls (each adult pair had about 6 young fledge instead of the usual 2).  Once winter arrived, the abundance of full-grown baby owls  (plus adults) created heavy competition for food;  the younger owls get displaced by the more established adults and must then move south for the winter.  When food becomes abundant in the arctic with the coming of summer, the young will move back north.

Check out the National News report on the Snowy Owl invasion if you haven’t already seen it:  And here is a nice eBird article on the Snowy phenomenon.

If you were planning on going to see the Cumberland County Snowy, don’t lose hope!  There is one even closer.  On February 1st, this picture was taken of a Snowy at the Northeast Airport in Philly.  Perhaps he likes the company of the cone…

Snowy Owl at NE Air, Philly PA 2-1-12.  Photo by Frank Windfelder
Snowy Owl at NE Air, Philly PA 2-1-12. Photo by Frank Windfelder

Of course, you can still head out to Cumberland County to see the Townsend’s Warbler at 1133 Pine Rd, Carlisle PA.  The homeowner is a very kind man who allows birders on his property to see the warbler, which regularly darts around his extravagant system of “squirrel-proof”  bird feeders.  This is only the 4th documented record of a Townsend’s Warbler overwintering in PA!  Check out the slow-motion you tube video of the quick little warbler bustling about the feeders on Pine Road.   Thanks , Dr. Green,  for allowing me on your deck to see this fabulous bird!

Townsend's Warbler I banded in Washington State near Mt. Rainier.
Townsend's Warbler I banded in Washington State near Mt. Rainier. By Blake Goll

Willistown Conservation Trust Bird News and Upcoming Events

Our first family Winter Bird Walk at Rushton Woods Preserve went very well last weekend with an avid group of about 20 birders of all skill levels in attendance.  We enjoyed seeing (and hearing) many usual winter residents including Eastern Bluebirds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, American Goldfinch, Towhees and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Thanks to Alice Hausmann, who was kind enough to allow us on her property to check out her pond, we got to glimpse some handsome Hooded Mergansers and a lone Bufflehead female.

Be on the lookout for information about our next public bird walk, which will hopefully be an American Woodcock Walk!  These cryptic shorebirds can be viewed at dusk in early spring (beginning as early as late February or March), with the males performing stunning aerial displays for the females who watch from below.  More information to come…

American Woodcock by Gerrit Vyn
American Woodcock by Gerrit Vyn

SAVE THE DATE! We will be hosting a “Pretty Big Birding Day” 6 pm May 11- 6pm May 12, during which teams of 3-6 birders of all ages and skill levels will compete against each other to see who can find the most bird species in the Trust’s program area in 24 hours!  The event will end with a party, complete with casual dinner, drinks and awards.  Don’t miss this opportunity to bird the beautiful Upper Ridley/Crum IBA (Important Bird Area), including all of the Willistown Conservation Trust’s Preserves after dark (normally only open until dusk) and other birding hotspots that are normally not open to the public.  Start forming your team now and contact Dick Eales ( for more information and contest rules and to register your team.  Registration fees are $25 for adults and $10 for children under 12. Sign up by April 15th.

 Beer for Birds, March 2, is SOLD OUT!  Patrick McGovern,  the world’s foremost beer archaeologist, will take us on a fascinating tour and tasting of ancient brews to benefit the Willistown Conservation Trust’s new Bird Conservation Program.

The next PA Young Birders (PAYB) Meeting is February 18th, 9:30-11am (Location to be announced- either Rushton Woods Preserve or WCT headquarters).  Kids, ages 8-12, are welcome to join us and the rest of the nation for The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).  Please contact Lisa Kiziuk to sign your child up for the PA Young Birders GBBC February 18th ( 

The GBBC is an Audubon and Cornell citizen science project that offers scientists a real-time snapshot of winter bird distribution across the nation and is a very important source of population and occurence data.  Check out the GBBC website to learn more about it and participate in your own backyard. You don’t have to be a kid to help scientists monitor birds, of course!  It’s easy and fun; You just need to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, February 17-20, and submit your data online.

The PA Young Birders helped make bluebird boxes for the Trust and learned all about cavity-nesting birds at a previous meeting this fall.

That’s all I’ve got for now!

Bird on,


Sawwhet.  By TinyAviary


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Jay says:

    Awesome post Blake! Amazing events and happenings for WCT and birders all over the area

  2. marc says:

    I have just begun birding over the last few months. I was out today (2-16-2012) by duncan and mud level road and did in fact see the snowy owl around 5:15pm. He was probably 1/5th of a mile in on someones farm. I snapped a few photos but was losing light and my 70-300 did not really have the reach I needed even with a 2x teleconverter. But rest assured that he’s still in the area for those hoping to get a glimpse.

    1. wctbirds says:

      Great! I’m glad the owl came back so people can continue enjoying him. If you have a minute, you might want to post your snowy owl sighting to PA Birds: I don’t see any recent info on the owl, and I’m sure someone would appreciate it!

      1. marc says:

        I saw him/her(snowy owl) again today around 3pm around the same area as yesterday. He was a little closer and I was able to get a number of decent photos of the owl. I used a 300mm lens with a 2x converter and managed to get a nice clear shot of him. Happy to report!


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