In Search of Tiny “Snowlmen”

I have always had a weakness for owls, so when TG suggested we fly north to photograph snowys, you bet I was on it!  A popular spot is Plum Island in Massachusetts, where on any winter day you are pretty much guaranteed multiple sightings.  But the COVID restrictions for traveling to MA are complicated and not something we wanted to deal with on a short trip.

We started looking at other areas in the US and were happy to discover that Michigan also has snowy owls, including the area around the Grand Rapids airport.  Over the past 10 years, there have been dozens of sightings during the month of January alone.

Welcome to Michigan!

In early November 2020 we booked a roundtrip flight PBI-GRR, a hotel close to the airport, and an Avis SUV.  I began checking the ebird sightings daily and to my dismay there were none at the airport as we drew closer to our January, 2021 departure date! 

Grand Rapids airport – no snowy owl sightings!

But ebird is an incredibly useful tool and it was easy to find other “hotspots” within the general Grand Rapids vicinity.  The Muskegon Wastewater Management facility looked especially promising.   According to their website it’s free to enter but you must have a Visitors Pass.  So, I called ahead and reserved one for the week.

Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Facility

A few notes about flying in this time of Covid.  We flew Tuesday-Tuesday, avoiding potential weekend crowds.  We flew in and out of smaller airports with less flights and people.   We looked for connecting flights vs. direct to avoid long hours sitting on the plane. We wore N95 masks the whole time (I wore my pretty owl mask on top so was doubly protected) and never used the lavatory.

masks are mandatory on American Airlines flights, including the pilot!

We stayed at a Hyatt Place, which we already knew is doing a great job keeping Covid-safe.  They space people out in the hotel and allow each room at least 24 hours between new guests.  They have suspended daily housekeeping unless you request it. 

view from room 507, Hyatt Place Wyoming MI

We brought our own food from home for breakfast and lunches.  We went to a grocery store twice to buy things for dinner and also bought a coffee maker ($19) to avoid going downstairs in the morning.   All-in-all we took every precaution we could think of to keep ourselves as safe as possible.

our $19 coffee pot (which we carried home with us!)

Our first morning we headed directly to the Muskegon Wastewater facility. 

on our way to look for snowy owls!

We programmed country roads into Siri and were treated to spectacular panoramas as we drove up and down the hills of Western Michigan.

on the road to Muskegon
Michigan sunrise

Our Visitor’s Pass was waiting in the after-hours mailbox, as promised. 

our visitors packet

We had no idea what to expect once we were up on the berm. 

the wastewater treatment pools

The place is huge, with giant pools processing septic waste brought in by a continuous parade of big trucks. 

this is a working facility!

We were told this is a working facility and the trucks get right of way. 

you can stop and get out anywhere but need to make sure other cars and trucks can pass

But we were welcome to drive around any of the areas indicated on the map that was included with my packet.  Some of the roads are concrete with high retaining walls that surround the actual treatment pools.   

map included with my packet

Others surround what they call “dry” ponds, which are basically big, open fields. There are also two huge frozen ponds (storage lagoons), which can be circumnavigated.  These all have raised dirt roads that reminded me of the levees here in Florida.

the center road between the two frozen ponds

The entire facility is around 11, 000 acres

home to thousands of birds

And is home to literally thousands of birds.

thousands of Canadian geese sitting out on the ice

According to ebird, snowy owls are regularly seen on the center road between the two frozen ponds, so we started there.  About ¾ of the way down, two cars were stopped, looking at a tiny black dot out on the ice.

those tiny black dots are owls!

We quickly learned those tiny black dots are owls!

young female sitting far out on the ice

After spending some time with her, we turned back towards the entrance.  TG said, “which way?” and I replied, “I feel we should go left.”  This turned out to the right choice as we came upon a beautiful young female sitting on a pipe close to the road.

a beautiful young female sitting on a pipe

She stayed for a few minutes and then flew to the concrete wall,

she took off from the pipe and landed on the concrete wall behind her

Where she sat for the remainder of the day.  

she sat in this same spot all day!

It was almost dusk by the time we pointed ourselves towards home and we later learned that sitting in one spot all day is typical behavior for female snowy owls.

keeping my distance (but also stretching my legs!)

Thursday morning, we were up early and anxious to get back to Muskegon. 

scraping ice off the windshield: just like riding a bicycle!

We were barely on the berm when a female flew directly over us and landed on the ice to eat her breakfast. 

breakfast on the ice

She didn’t stay long before flying off again, but after our experience the day before, we figured she would be in that same area all day.  So, we drove down the center berm and circumnavigated the frozen ponds. 

We saw red-tailed hawks,

red-tailed hawk

Thousands of Canadian geese and multiple duck species,

Canadian geese

A new (to us) rough-legged hawk,

rough-legged hawk

Gulls and bald eagles.

we saw at least two different adults and one juvi bald eagle

The Administration building has a bird feeder, and on our lunch break we snapped a few pics of the various tiny birds that flitted about.

the bird feeder at the Administration building

That afternoon “Snowy” treated us to another close sighting.  This time she sat perched on top of a yellow pole against the bright blue sky

“Snowy” on top of a yellow pole against the blue sky

Before dropping down to the concrete wall below.

“Snowy” with red truck

It was another fantastic day and our memory cards were full by the time we headed for home.  I joked to TG that now I wanted a pure-white adult male and to my delight he said “ok, let’s look for one tomorrow!”  

somewhere north of Grand Rapids

Once back at the hotel, we checked ebird and found an area about two hours north with consistent sightings of an all-white male.  We decided to head up there first thing Friday morning, again taking backroads so that we could enjoy the beautiful countryside.

sunrise north of Grand Rapids

Being from Florida, I also wanted a snowman!

snowman!

The fields in the area we wanted to search were filled with giant windmills, silently turning in the morning fog. 

fields of giant windmills

We searched the power poles and although we did not find our male, we did spy another young female.   

young female on a power pole

We followed her from pole to pole until we finally lost her against the white sky.

we followed her from pole to pole until …
we lost her against the white sky

When I was a kid, my mother would ask my father to stop the car whenever we passed a stand of white birch trees so she could admire their beauty.  It was only fitting that I asked the same from TG as we meandered our way back south.

beautiful stand of white birch trees

Before heading to the hotel, we visited the Wastewater facility again.  We found “Snowy” on her usual perch giving herself a little pedicure.

“Snowy” pedicure!

The sky was so blue and the air so crisp and clear we drove out to the center berm road and TG showed me how do shoot “starburst” sun shots.

TG shooting panos
starburst pano on center berm road

We had decided that if we got enough good photos during the week, we would reserve the weekend for friends and family.  Our good friends Chris and Sandy live in Union Pier, about 90 minutes south of Grand Rapids. 

Happy with our pics thus far, on Saturday morning we headed south. But first we detoured to another ebird hotspot that promised an all-white adult male:  the airport in Goshen, Indiana.

Indiana detour!

We were absolutely thrilled to find him sitting in a field across the road from the airport, looking for all the world like a tiny snowman!

sitting in the middle of a field looking for all the world like a tiny snowman

He was at least 100 yards away and having had enough of our paparazzi, he flew even further into the field. 

adult male snowy owl

We thanked him for the photo op and pointed ourselves towards Union Pier.

I have known Sandy for almost 20 years and was matron of honor at her & Chris’ wedding. 

Chris, Sandy, Oslo, Mazie & me at Warren Dunes State Park

We were so happy to squeeze in a short visit on this trip and apart from sleeping, spent most of our time outdoors. 

Chris and TG (and Oslo) on their property near Warren Dunes

They live close to Warren Dunes State Park and we spent a delightful afternoon catching up while enjoying the Michigan winter sunshine.

Chris and Sandy at Warren Dunes with Mazie and Oslo

On Sunday morning TG’s brother and wife drove up from Chicago to meet us for brunch at a restaurant that offers private, outdoor “igloos” to stay warm and also Covid-safe.

Karen, Scott, TG & me

And then it was time to head back to Grand Rapids and get ready for our last full day with the owls.

Lake Michigan

Monday was by far the coldest and dreariest day of our week.  We arrived at the Wastewater facility just after sunrise and it seemed everyone was hunkered down against the cold.  It took us a while to find even one owl.

our coldest day!

We finally had one fly from the center berm road to a wooden structure in one of the frozen treatment pools where she sat for a while before disappearing across the ice.

she didn’t stay here too long

TG was able to get some fantastic in-flight shots.

snowy owl in flight

The wind was bitterly cold and since we were both happy with our photos from the week, we figured it was time to head back to the hotel.  We had a 6am flight the next morning and we wanted to get to bed early.  Besides, after six days of driving around on dirt roads in the ice and snow, we needed a car wash!

the car definitely needed a wash!

We could not have asked for a smoother journey home in planes so empty every passenger got a full row to themselves.  We pulled into our driveway around noon, tired and happy.

sunrise above the clouds

The trip exceeded all expectations, with more owl sightings than we could have hoped for, plus the chance to spend a little time with family and friends.  As of this writing, it has been a week since we returned home with no sign of any sickness. It appears all of our safety precautions were worthwhile.

TG shooting panos

Travel during these Covid days is not easy.  You must weigh your risks carefully.  But the same night we got home, we received word that TG’s cousin unexpectedly died, someone he had been close to since childhood. 

somewhere in Northern Michigan

In closing I want to share the words he posted on his Facebook page that night:

“In the midst of this pandemic, it is becoming clear to JET and me that we should balance the need for protecting ourselves against living our lives fully.  Tomorrow is never guaranteed, despite today’s careful actions.  Our Michigan trip was a calculated decision and we would do it again in a heartbeat.  Don’t let these times paralyze you from living your life without regrets.”

“Don’t let these times paralyze you from living your life without regrets”

For more owl pics visit our Flickr albums:

TG: https://www.flickr.com/photos/werdnanilmot/albums/72157717900345658

jet: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jetomlin/albums/72157717891202341

Author: TG&jet

Nature photographers - wildlife, landscapes, underwater; travelers; bloggers

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