Thursday, February 16, 2012

Snowy owls draw Joe Neal and friends to southwest Missouri prairie

Snowy Owl stares like I'm a cotton rat, white feathered head and face,  
penetrating bright yellow eyes, long black talons -- obviously up to  
the task -- partially obscured by white feathers. An email from Bruce  
Shackleford, an environmental consultant for the City of Fayetteville,  
details an owl near Asbury, Missouri, that a UPS driver has been  
seeing for five weeks!
The location in Bruce's email is up on the old Ozark prairies near  
Asbury, Missouri, south of Prairie State Park and adjacent Wah-Sha-She  
Prairie State Wildlife Area. Looks like the real deal, so Sally Jo  
Gibson from Harrison, David Oakley from Springdale, and me  
(Fayetteville) are on the road. It's mostly the hilly and currently  
leafless Ozarks. At Bella Vista, 71 runs alongside golf courses and  
limestone overhangs and Tanyard Creek, where we see Great Blue Herons  
standing in nests in tall, white sycamores, whole scene dappled with  
sycamore balls.
At Joplin, chicken house tin is crumbled around upper limbs of bare  
trees, testimony to the tornado of May 22, 2011, 160 lives lost. We  
swing around the city on the east, then north, now on highway 171, and  
pass a village of FEMA trailers for survivors of 7,000 destroyed homes.
We have popped onto old prairies, now mostly converted to vast flats  
of winter wheat.  Minutes ahead: Asbury, then Wah-Sha-She and  
hopefully the owl of Bruce's email. The Kansas line is two miles  
ahead. After rain and melted snow, it's green with emerging wheat,  
brown with fresh planting, mainly open country, very open, like the  
land of Snowy Owls.
It's been three months give or take since owls became birder's  
discussion list headliners. For Arkansans, frustrating months of  
mainly white 5-gallon buckets and wind-blown Walmart bags  
imaginatively and longingly viewed on the backsides of big fields. Now  
there are Lapland Longspurs among Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows  
in a plowed field. Northern Harriers are everywhere. As we turn off  
171 onto Redbud Road, we spot the familiar 5-gallon bucket, but this  
one slowly turns toward us, with big yellow eyes.
The owl seems to prefer a slightly elevated ground perch formed by big  
gravels, maybe like the windy, bouldery arctic barrens where they  
nest? We take our views from a portable blind -- Sally Jo's car. We  
are pretty close; the owl seems immune to rational fears of, say,  
Red-tailed Hawks persecuted by many generations of Arkansas boys. It  
mainly surveys the other parts of its 360 degree domain.
In truth, we're not in Missouri, Arkansas, or even close to Kansas.  
Welcome to a big field on the continent of North America, within Snowy  
Owl range this winter.
JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas
"I loaf and invite my soul..." -- Walt Whitman

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