An inscrutable visitor from the Arctic

Snowy Owl, St Davids Head.

This snowy owl was first reported from St. Davids Head on the Pembrokeshire bird blog on Good Friday, and then again on April 3rd. It seemed to be elusive, to say the least. But the forecast for April 5th was good, and I overcame my usual inertia and decided to go for it.  It wouldn’t be the first snowy owl I have ever seen. The first was on Fetlar (Shetland) in 1985, one of the last birds from the breeding pair present there for a number of years. The second was on moorland in North Uist a few summers ago which may actually have been a plastic sack full of peat turves, so white was it and so little did it move! But a snowy owl in Wales! And (almost) on my home patch……

I arrived at Whitesands about 8.45 am and began the walk across to St Davids Head. After about half a mile I met a birder coming the other way. It was Mike Young-Powell, a local birder whose patch I knew St Davids Head was. Obviously excited, he borrowed my phone to get the news out. He had seen the bird on a rocky outcrop just a few minutes previously. I headed back with him to relocate it, and it suddenly took flight from maybe twenty yards away from us. For such a large white creature it could be surprisingly inconspicuous.

It settled amongst tussocks in the valley bottom, with only its top half showing, unfortunately. We watched it from a distance while Mike waited for his wife and friends to arrive, and then he gave me the go-ahead to get closer. I apologised in advance in case I disturbed it……

I soon got to a point on the other side of the valley where the light was better and began to creep closer, stage by stage. The owl clearly knew I was there but didn’t seem at all anxious. At each point I watched her for a few minutes and took a few pictures. I peeped over a clump of brambles and bracken, and just watched. It was quite an intimate moment, and I felt truly honoured to be in her presence.  She seemed quite relaxed, blinking in the sunshine and looking around from time to time. When closed her eyes looked like little smiley black slits in a round white face. Talk about inscrutable! There was something about a sumo wrestler about it. Much too soon, however, my presence became too much and she flew off.

I expected some flack from the other birders when I returned to the path but they were fine.  Continuing up valley I rounded a corner and the owl exploded away from her perch on the ground about twenty yards away. She flew some distance and landed on a rock, where she was harrased angrily by a raven and chased back towards us. She landed on the hillside opposite, about half way up Carn Llidi, much too far away for a binocular user like myself. From this distance and with only 10×40’s, she appeared grey all over with a white face. I settled down and waited for her to make a move. Seven hours later she was still there.

During that time she shifted around a bit, and those with a scope would have found the minor details of her resting period fascinating, I’m sure. For me the most interesting thing was the behaviour of two ravens. One made a sudden right angle turn and flew over to the owl, landing briefly on a rock about ten yards away. Another inspected the owl carefully from above. Neither of them could ever have seen a snowy owl before, and probably didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps the owl was too near to the nest of the angry bird mentioned earlier.

Eventually I got too cold to wait around any longer and drove home. I downloaded the pictures into Lightroom yesterday and found to my relief that one of the closest pics was sharp. I cloned out two grass stems which fell across the birds face, and cropped the image fairly drastically for the above portrait. The quality at 100% is still pretty impressive! It is noticeable how brown the barring is on its upper breast compared to that on its crown. The afternoon had been pretty frustrating, but what a morning! This has to be one of the most amazing birds I have ever seen.

PS : Many thanks to Alastair and Jill Proud for the sandwich and Welsh cakes…..

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About Jeremy Moore

Recently described as "Wales' leading environmental photographer"; based near Aberystwyth, and specialising in Welsh landscape and wildlife. He has published the Wild Wales / Cymru Wyllt range of postcards since 1987. His most recent book was "Wales at Waters Edge" (with Jon Gower) published in May 2012. The National Library of Wales has a large number of his prints in its Collection. His exhibition "Bird/land" was shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre from June until August 2016. It originally received support from the Arts Council of Wales. He is also working on a new book about Wales with the author Jon Gower, due for publication in autumn 2018.
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2 Responses to An inscrutable visitor from the Arctic

  1. Brian Boothby says:

    Dammit …….. you’ve done it AGAIN! Tried sleuthing one in Cornwall a while back but was unsuccessful. Must be an amazing creature to see in the wild …… or anywhere, come to that Good to do a twitch occasionally, then!

  2. Jeremy Moore says:

    Hi Brian,

    Having described myself as the world’s worst twitcher, it does make a nice change when things work out that well.

    The bird was seen yesterday about half a mile off New Quay, heading north, so who knows where it will turn up next.

    Are you free at all next week? I’m planning to head east……..

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