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Sandy's Quest for the Snowy Owl

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Photo by Ernie Hawks Photo by Ernie Hawks


We are tracking an irruption, a word new to us in this cubic Honda, excepting critter expert Brian, who is seated behind Ernie, our chauffer. In the right front seat is Gary, organizer and advocate of irruption tracking. I’m behind Gary, savoring the advantages and vantages of a non-navigating passenger, watching Sanders County flow by. 

At Plains, we turn north on Montana 28 to Hot Springs, Niarada and a hard right into Flathead County. We climb east into Lake County through J. Harlan Bretz’s proof of Lake Missoula floods, rolling radial hills, humongous ripple marks left from sudden emptying of that prehistoric lake at the end of the last Ice Age. We top an 18-mile-long ramp and find additional proof—ancient shorelines shaping hillsides above Flathead Lake’s Big Arm, Wild Horse Island and Elmo. We turn south on US 93 toward Polson and our irruption. 

An irruption is an invasion, an irregular increase in numbers. In an upscale development on a hill above Polson, snowy owls have irrupted. An abundance of Arctic lemmings last year led to an abundance of snowy owls in the U.S. this year, some as far south as Missouri. 

We are here to witness the Montanan irruption, eight young individuals feeding on a hearty crop of meadow voles in the Mission Valley, stretching south from their hill; cold, grey and shuttered by low clouds this day. It’s 15°F, balmy for birds evolved to life above the Arctic Circle, but I’m pleased there is no wind—and somewhat disappointed the owls have chosen a chunk of suburbia to irrupt into.

Ernie mounts his camera on its big lens, and we spread out along the road, trying not to get real estate signs in our pictures. Brian sends them “mouse-in-distress” calls. The birds are patient with a semi-constant flow of pilgrims invading their space, but when one gets too close, they fly to the roof of a nearby mansionette. 

We stay until we can’t take the weather, go eat lunch, then return for a last look. A young woman in a long, dark coat stalks the hilltop, peering south, pointedly ignoring owls on roofs. She knows something we don’t, I think. We drive past the development into open farmland and find what she is looking for—a lone, spotted female on a leaning fencepost overlooking the wilder valley. She looks like she irrupted in the right spot. 

We’re an irruption ourselves, an invasion of amateur ornithologists and casual sightseers, the first of which will leave their cars even on days like this. We are irregularly increased in numbers, first two, then five, then 11; lining the blacktop on top of a hill above Polson. But, we don’t venture far. We are like the owls that take to the safety of rooftops. Yet, behind us, as we drive south toward Pablo and Dixon, there is the young woman in the long, dark coat on the hilltop—and the owl alone on the fencepost—showing us a different way.

The story continues with Ernie, here.


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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

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Sandy Compton, Snowy Owl

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