‘Look for something white’

Discovering the North through its most iconic birds.

 

A female snowy owl returns to her nest, where fuzzy owlets wait.
Paul Bannick

There are two ways I know to see a snowy owl.

The first is this: If you’re listening to music and cleaning the house on a rainy weekend afternoon and the radio station offers the ninth caller tickets to a concert, pick up the phone and dial. The concert will be in an old barn tucked into a web of back roads, and it will snow the night of the concert — soft, fat flakes that swirl in the glowing light from the barn windows. On the way home at 2 a.m., your friend will be driving his red truck slow down roads draped with lacy branches, dark except for the twin beams of his headlights. You’re sleepy; your attention drifts. And then an owl the color of snow drops in front of the windshield. For a fraction of a moment, it hangs in front of you, its wingspan as wide as the truck. Then, as if someone pulled the puppet strings, it lifts and is gone.

The second way requires less luck and more money. First, you have to travel to Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly Barrow), the northernmost town in the United States and the only snowy owl breeding ground in the country. If the weather is bad, this could take days. The plane from Anchorage to Utqiagvik might, as mine did, cross the Arctic Circle, dip tantalizingly close to the Arctic Ocean, then turn around. Too stormy to land.

So we spend the night in Anchorage and try again the next day. Many of the passengers are on their way to work at the oil rigs of Prudhoe Bay and have flown this route a hundred times. They doze off or drink rum-and-Cokes, inured to the landscape below, while over in seat 20A, I touch my forehead to the cold Plexiglas, not inured at all. It’s my first visit to the Arctic.

We soar without fanfare across the Arctic Circle and over the Brooks Range, treeless mountains that stretch 600 miles east to west. Glaciers run like racetracks through the valleys, and the mountains look like they go on forever — until they don’t. At their northern edge, rivers spool from the mountains and unfurl onto an enormous plain, where they disperse into depressions small and large, oblong and round, each reflecting the sun until the world below is dappled with pools of light.

As we near the coast, the mirror-lakes give way to spongy tundra. Just below the surface are walls of ice that divide the tundra into polygons, each several yards across, so that from above it creates a pattern like lizard skin. This feels like a wildly dissonant analogy until you learn that Utqiagvik, Alaska, receives roughly the same precipitation as Tucson, Arizona. The difference is that the scant rain and snow here can’t drain into the earth because of a barrier of ice, so hundreds of years of precipitation lingers on the surface of the land, collecting into ponds and creating a refuge for avian life. Birders from around the world come to look for migrants like the golden plover — a pebble-speckled bird that arrives after a 3,000-mile journey from the tropics — and the snowy owl, a true bird of the North. A bird at home in lonely, windswept places. A bird that scoffs at the tropics.

I am not a birder. I am a journalist here for other reasons, but I soon learn that it’s impossible to come to the Arctic and ignore its birds. I thought I might see a polar bear, or a walrus, but big mammals are relatively scarce in the North and birds are plentiful. Before the arrival of guns, Iñupiat hunted with bolas — a set of ivory- or bone-carved balls attached to a cord of sinew. The hunter would whirl the bola, gathering momentum, then throw it skyward toward a flock of birds. With luck, the sinew would tangle around a bird’s legs and pull it to the ground. Food.

After Alaska became a state, the federal government tried to regulate bird hunting with the same regulations it applied to the Lower 48. But such rules are incompatible with Arctic survival, and after several Iñupiat men were fined for hunting ducks out of season, the residents of Utqiagvik organized a duck-in: 138 residents turned themselves in, illegally harvested fowl in hand. The local game warden was overwhelmed with paperwork, and Utqiagvik was granted an exemption to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Birds aren’t just birds here. Birds are life.

My first night in Utqiagvik, under a sky so bright it requires sunglasses, I walk along the shore, following a small songbird that flits from one ice floe to the next. Back home the bird would be unremarkable, a sparrow-looking thing, but here on the ice it’s otherworldly. It leads me to two Iñupiat women sitting in lawn chairs, smoking and drinking sodas, and they invite me to join them. Their kids are playing in the sand with plastic buckets and shovels, looking for all the world like they’re enjoying a day at the beach — except that it’s nearly midnight, and the ocean is encased in ice. I say something about this being the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and the women look at me blankly. The longest day of the year means nothing where the sun never sets.

 

The second way I know to see a snowy owl I learn from Denver Holt, a biologist who’s been studying them for 25 years. On my last day in Utqiagvik, Holt invites me to ride onto the tundra on the back of his four-wheeler. He drives me farther from town than I’ve yet been, revving the engine down a path bogged in mud, through swarms of mosquitos. At a seemingly random spot, he stops and hands me his binoculars. “Can you see it?” he asks.

I see nothing. Just endless mounds of moss and dwarf shrubs pocked with pools of swampy water. “Look,” he urges. “Look for something white.”

Finally, I spot it: a white blur, so pure it appears to be glowing. It’s a male snowy owl, standing guard a few dozen yards from his mate’s nest. The male is our marker, bright against the brown tundra. Once we spot him we scan left and right until we see the female. She’s more mottled, nearly indistinguishable from the earth. We keep our eyes fixed and walk toward her, closer and closer until the four-wheeler is lost in the distance and we’re two small specks in an enormous, monotonous landscape.

Closer still, and the male grows concerned. He tries to distract us. He performs what Holt calls a “broken-wing dance,” heartbreaking and beautiful. He dances to convince us that he’s hurt, that he’s more enticing than the clutch of eggs beneath his partner. When we ignore his efforts and continue toward the nest, he begins circling overhead, furious.

The female doesn’t move until we’re 20 feet away, then silently rises and flies to a nearby mound, watching suspiciously as we examine the bowl of downy feathers she’s pressed into the tundra. Inside are five white eggs. Holt checks each to make sure it’s intact, then begins cataloguing the array of bones scattered around the nest. There’s a freshly killed lemming — the owls’ main source of food — and Holt weighs it, writing the details in a yellow field notebook. He’s studying the relationship between lemmings and owl populations, the latter of which are declining. The male continues to circle.

Suddenly Holt yells — “Duck!” — and I throw myself flat on the ground, my face buried in moss. Holt is next to me, having narrowly escaped an attack from the male, who swooped toward us, intent on implanting his talons in Holt’s skull.

 

The Iñupiat have a word, piqiut, that describes compassion for animals. One woman told me this extends to not harassing wild creatures or causing them undue stress, which made me question our intrusion on the owls’ nests. Then the woman explained that there’s one exception: Piqiut is permissible if it supports science that will be used to help wildlife populations survive, especially in a time when many are threatened from climate change and increased human activity.

The concept of piqiut isn’t purely altruistic. Though Utqiagvik is a modern town with a pizzeria, sushi restaurant and grocery store, its infrastructure is largely maintained with oil money, and some residents consider the oil industry as fleeting and undependable as the whaling industry before it. Most Iñupiat still depend on whales, seals and wild birds for sustenance, and link their own physical and cultural survival to keeping those populations healthy.

In other parts of the world, owls are considered harbingers of death: silent wings in the night, deadly talons, the hushed passing from one world to the next. But in the Arctic, they’re synonymous with life. Perhaps it’s because snowy owls hunt in the daylight. They show up to hatch their eggs around the time that the darkness of winter dissolves into the light of spring, and their round, bright faces resemble the sun. In Arctic myth, snowy owls guide weary hunters to safety, inhabit the bodies of shamans, and fly to the spirit world to negotiate on behalf of the living. They are protectors — and in turn, worthy of protection.

Note: This story has been updated to correct an earlier assertion that snowy owls are the only diurnal species of owl. In fact, several owl species hunt during the day.

Correspondent Krista Langlois lives in Durango, Colorado, and frequently covers Alaska.

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