Winter Visitors

In the morning, we woke to a new world. The storm had filled the driveway with waist-high drifts, and the road beyond was unplowed and impassable. Schools were closed, of course. It appeared that nobody was going to work, either.
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Snowy Owl Dennis Winter Art
Illustration by Glenn Wolff

In the morning, we woke to a new world. The storm had filled the driveway with waist-high drifts, and the road beyond was unplowed and impassable. Schools were closed, of course. It appeared that nobody was going to work, either.

Later, after I had cleared the driveway and the county plow opened Blue Water Road, we drove to Mapleton to stock up on the groceries we should have purchased days ago. Half a mile from home, we saw a snowy owl perched at the top of a telephone pole. It was the seventh day in a row we had seen her on that same pole. We pulled over and shut off the engine and watched through binoculars. She was pristine white and huge — that was how we knew she was female; males are noticeably smaller. She turned her head nearly all the way around to look at us and blinked one yellow eye, then the other. Then she launched into flight, dropping from the pole and soaring low across the meadow without once flapping her wings. Her wingspan was immense; it looked to be 5 feet, at least.

And in flight, her coloring became even more brilliant, brighter even than the snow — so bright she seemed to be a source of light. I’ve never seen a more magnificent bird.

The summer people went home long ago, but we still get visitors. Snowy owls are among those we look forward to most every year. They arrive in January or February, driven from the Arctic tundra when lemmings and other prey are scarce. Some years, we see none. Other years, so many show up that they constitute what wildlife biologists call an “irruption.” During an irruption a few years ago, a dozen or more took up residence in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties where they had apparently found enough snowshoe hares, meadow voles and mice to support living there. Locally, one big female chose to roost on a rooftop a block from downtown Traverse City and stayed for many days. She became a celebrity of sorts and had a strong presence on social media.

On a Saturday night during that same winter, a few friends and I had dinner at my favorite downtown restaurant, amical. We lingered over the meal, talking and drinking wine, and ended up closing the place. The owner, Dave Denison, joined us for a final glass of wine, and we got talking about the weather, which in this case was not idle talk. The night was bitterly cold, well below zero, and the streets and sidewalks were deserted. Homeless people who usually came to the back door of the restaurant to receive packages of leftovers that Dave’s staff prepared for them had not shown up. We hoped they all found warm rooms at the shelter.

Dave had a sudden inspiration and filled a coffee mug with boiling water from the kitchen. We followed him outside into the lung-searing cold and stepped to the center of Front Street. He counted to three and tossed the hot water into the air, where it vaporized instantly and, just as quickly, transformed into a fine dust of snow that settled around us.

We all wanted to get our own cups of boiling water and make snow, but before we could go inside, we sensed something ghostlike and absolutely silent passing overhead. It was there for a moment, just above the streetlights, then it disappeared into the night.

Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis lives and works on Old Mission Peninsula, near Traverse City. Visit him at jerrydennis.net

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