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  Field Notes From
Snowy Owls



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On Assignment
Arrows
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From Author

Lynne Warren



On Assignment

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From Photographer

Daniel J. Cox



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top), and Daniel J. Cox
 

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Snowy Owls

Field Notes From Author
Lynne Warren
Best Worst Quirkiest

I held a snowy owl. A little one. It sat on the back of my hand while researchers weighed and measured its nest mates. No wildlife documentary, no zoo, not even a lifetime enjoying the company of ordinary in-the-woods and around-the-house animals prepared me for what it felt like to touch a creature so wild and elegant and strong. I can still see its steady yellow stare, hear its little beak clacking at me, smell its slightly musty mouse-nest smell (I suspect the aroma comes from lemmings, a kind of small rodent that provides the bulk of the chicks' diet). It was gorgeously warm and fluffy. I wanted to pet it and snuggle my face in its feathers. But I didn't. I just held it, for three minutes, maybe four. It's a privilege I'll remember all the rest of my life.



Ever heard the joke about the mosquito being the State Bird of Alaska? Most of the time I was in Barrow the weather was chilly enough and windy enough (in July) that mosquitoes weren't much of a problem. But on a couple of afternoons the wind died down, the temperature rose into the balmy upper 50s, and the air instantly swarmed with bugs. Mosquitoes up my nose. Mosquitoes down my throat. I couldn't breathe without inhaling bug bits. They were everywhere. I wiped them out of my eyes, dug them out of my ears, brushed them out of my hair. I thought I'd met some winged demons before (on Assateague Island, Virginia, in August, for instance), but in my experience Alaska's mosquitoes reign supreme. (There may be more obnoxious swarms somewhere on Earth. I hope I never meet them.)



Snowy owl parents defend their young very aggressively, starting when intruders are still a long, long way away from their nests. They swoop through the sky making this harsh, amazingly loud sound that's sort of a cross between the cry of a huge seagull and the bark of a really agitated dog. Thoroughly intimidating! One day I was slogging over the tundra hummocks, and I looked up to see this owl dad rocketing straight at me, big long legs and wicked sharp talons outstretched. In a blink I was transformed from top-of-the-food-chain, world-dominating hominid, into, well, prey. I threw my arms over my head—a reaction of equal parts terror and instinct—crouched down as fast and low as I could manage, and hoped really, really hard that he wouldn't rip my head open. I call it my Lemming Moment.





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