We found the dark snowy owl on a fence post near the road.  Another birder had pulled off to the roadside, and that tipped us off to the presence of the owl.  The owl, likely a juvenile female, was just southeast of the intersection of Basin Harbor Rd. and Townline Rd. in Bridport, Vermont.  She was probably Olivia, the owl that has lived on Townline Rd. for most of this winter, often perching on an old barn near the road.  She was named by the neighbors who live across from the barn.

I got out of the car and walked to the road edge with my camera.  Just as I got ready to photograph, Olivia flew south along the fence row and landed on another fence post further down the line.  She seemed to be intently watching something to the south, as she raised her head, stretching her softly feathered neck.  I walked down the road to be opposite the post she was on, as she continued to be occupied with something in the field to the south.  Suddenly she took flight, and flew a short distance on broad white wings.  She hovered for an instant and dipped down as if she was going to land on the ground.  I thought she was hunting a vole or mouse.  But Olivia pulled back up, then circled out of sight to the east.  I thought she was leaving the field to hunt elsewhere and was disappointed.

Suddenly she reappeared from the east and flew south a short distance to the same place she had just hunted.  She hovered longer, then dropped down to the ground in a flash of white.  In an instant she had jumped up and was flapping away, slowly gaining altitude.  She appeared to have something small and dark in her talons, probably an unlucky vole.  Olivia circled back north and flew to the same fence post she had launched from on her first hunting foray, landing with her back to the road and me.  She bent forward, and it looked like she was eating her prey, which went down whole in one gulp.  Then she straightened back up, and started to preen a bit.  Owls often preen after capturing and eating prey, probably to straighten any feathers that may have been messed up in the effort.

I had taken a lot of photographs during these two hunting flights, and I hoped a few photos would come out well.  It is hard to get a good sharp image of a bird in flight.  I continued to photograph the owl as she preened and then sat on the post, while my husband talked to the other birder who had first found the owl.  They discussed other places that we and he had found owls today, and then he asked, “Did you see the interaction of this owl with the fox?”

“Darn!” I thought.  Neither of us had seen the fox.  That would have been so cool to witness.  It must have happened just before we got there.   After a short time we left to look for more snowy owls, and did find three more individuals, although none of them went after prey while we watched them.  We found six snowies on this trip, which for March 27 seemed like a good total, since the owls are going to be leaving any time now to head north to the Arctic where they breed, and probably some had already migrated.

When we got home, we unloaded the car, did chores, and then I uploaded my photos from the day’s birding trip onto the computer.  I started looking through the series of images that I took of Olivia hunting, and suddenly I spotted something in the bottom corner of a photo that took my breath away for an instant.  “Oh, Wow!”  I exclaimed, so loud that my husband came into the room to see what was so exciting.  I pointed to the lower right corner of the image which had Olivia hovering in the center, and blurted out, “Look at the fox!”

When you look through a telephoto lens of a camera, you are concentrating on your subject, and lining up the little square in the middle of the viewfinder with your subject in order to have the camera focus on it.  And when an owl is flying, it is very difficult to keep that little square centered on it, and you are working hard and not looking around at anything other than the owl.  So I was not completely surprised that I didn’t see the fox in this image, especially because it was partially hidden by the burdock and other tall weeds.  But as I clicked on each successive image, I was amazed at how many of them had captured  the fox in them, and how by enlarging either the owl or the fox, it was possible to get a much clearer idea of what had actually happened out in that overgrown field.  It was exhilarating to figure out the events, and almost as exciting as being there in real time all over again.  So now begins the rest of the story, as deduced from examining a whole series of lucky photographs.

Olivia had likely been watching the red fox hunting when I arrived.  When she took off on her first foray, the fox must have just caught the vole.  She made a partial dive toward him, and he cowered and flattened with fear, but for some reason Olivia pulled away and circled out of sight to the east.  Perhaps she wasn’t sure she wanted to attack a creature as big as a fox, which would certainly weigh much more than her.  But she returned quickly and this time she hovered almost directly over the fox.  The fox cowered again, and must have dropped its prey, because then Olivia dropped down instantly.  The fox ran to the north when Olivia dove, but when she jumped back up into the air with the vole in her talons, the fox turned and raced back toward her.  I don’t know if it would have attacked her or was just trying to get the vole back.  Olivia was faster getting into the air than the fox was, and she became airborne and escaped with the food before the fox got to her.  She circled to fly back to her post, and as she flew she crossed between me and the fox, which was busily sniffing the ground looking for its stolen meal.

If the fox hadn’t dropped the vole, would Olivia have attacked the fox?  Maybe when she hovered the first time and only dove down a little, the fox still had the vole in its mouth.  Why didn’t the fox quickly gulp down the vole?  I thought about this, and when looking at the photos, Olivia looks bigger than the fox, even though by weight she is much lighter.  If something that looked as big as me was about to dive at me, I don’t think I would be considering eating, but just escaping.

I wonder if in the Arctic, if snowy owls watch arctic foxes hunt, and if they try to steal prey from them?  My husband and I watched a different snowy owl dive bomb a red tailed hawk that had just caught a vole, but the hawk hunched down over its prey and did not abandon it, and the snowy, although much larger, did not attack the hawk.  The hawk flew off to a fence post and ate its prey, and the owl did not attack again.  Perhaps the snowies are big bluffers and try to intimidate competitors into dropping their prey, and maybe don’t often attack to get prey.  Since I have only seen two attempted prey thefts, I don’t have enough information to answer that.  But it does seem that stealing from other predators is one way that snowy owls obtain food, like bald eagles harassing ospreys to drop their fish.

I am so glad that my camera gave me an opportunity to see something that my eyes did not, and to allow me to share it with you.  Snowy owls are amazingly adaptable, complex, and wonderful creatures, and I hope a few return next winter so that we can watch, enjoy, and learn from them again.

– Ellie George