They appear from nowhere, stoic sentinels in fields, farmlands, and shorelines. For a time they become part of the landscape, but soon they will be gone. Each of these great nomads is on a lifelong journey, spanning continents in search of food. Individual owls have been tracked moving from Alaska to the Canadian Arctic to Russia over the course of just a couple years. Some wander the pack ice, hundreds of miles from land where they feed in Arctic darkness on seabirds. And in some winters, many of them come south. These owls are on the coast of Washington. A summer of lemming abundance in the Arctic produced lots of young owls and competition for food further north may have pushed them here. Wet plumage in the early morning on the feet and under the tail reveals they’re not only preying on voles and rats but also on shorebirds and waterfowl snatched from the water with their hooked talons. For most of the day they roost motionless to conserve energy. But they often break their stillness to preen, revealing the depth of the insulated plumage that allows them to endure the bitter cold wind of the usual Arctic environment. Feathers even cover their powerful feet and toes and surround their beak. This dense plumage makes them seem much larger than they actually are. Their heads are scarcely more than two incredibly sensitive eyes and ears with a brain in-between and a raptor’s beak and gullet. The unpredictability of Snowy Owl behavior and movements is part of their allure. When one of these Arctic wanderers comes south to reside briefly in a farmer’s field, we get to glimpse a moment in a long food-driven journey that we as humans can hardly imagine. [Filmed and photographed by Gerrit Vyn]

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Snowy Owls lead nomadic lives and travel vast distances from year to year searching for productive feeding areas. Some years conditions cause them to come south from the Arctic in great numbers. Looking closely you can see the dense plumage that helps them stay warm in frigid environments.

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