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Visitor from the North Pole

Create wild places, and wildlife will come

      My home is on the edge of a forest with many old oaks and tall loblolly pines. There are also many native shrubs and perennials in a hundred-year flood plain. Beaver Creek meanders through the flood plain before running into Severn Run, which becomes the headwaters of the Severn River.
      Our land is preserved in the Maryland Environmental Trust. An occasional reward is getting to see some unexpected wildlife.
      This winter, a big white bird perched about 70 feet high in an oak tree overlooking the flood plain. A light snow had fallen a couple of days before. Looking out the back of our house, my husband and I could see that it was big and white and fluffy and looked like an owl. It was pure white and slightly flecked with black. Its feet, also white, were covered with feathers.
      As I thought it unusual to see an owl in broad daylight, I grabbed my trusty Peterson Field Guide.
      The guide described the snowy owl, Nyctea scandiaca, as preferring marshes, meadows and shores. It perches on posts, dunes, muskrat houses and haystacks. Its range is the Arctic, but it winters irregularly in the middle United States. Its range is cyclic, irrupting in numbers at about four-year intervals.
       After staring at the bird for 15 minutes, I still wasn’t positive.
       The very next night as I turned on MPT-2, a show called Outdoors Maryland came on. It featured snowy owls from the Arctic that occasionally overwinter on Assateague Island on our Eastern Shore.
      The bird we saw was indeed a snowy owl.
      The DNR person hosting the show was trapping a snowy owl (with the help of a dove), then tagging and releasing the big bird. He said that last year saw an increase in the lemming population in the Arctic, which resulted in an increase in the owl population. When extreme cold weather hits the Arctic, the owls come south looking for food. Assateague Island is one of their favorite places to winter.
       We also had one visiting in western Anne Arundel County.
       The more we can create a layered native habitat of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, the more likely we are to see such beautiful treasures.