Christmas Day Owling

By: Catie Anderson, curator of education on January 4th, 2012

The emails had been flying back and forth. My parents and I were planning my Christmas trip home to Chicago, sharing links to museum exhibitions, movies, and restaurants we wanted to check out. One special emailed story got me particularly excited to return home: a snowy owl had been spotted at our local birding spot on Lake Michigan. The sighting presented a potential opportunity for me to see an owl in the wild for a second time; the first was a barn owl I startled in the Galapagos. The thrill of turning a small street corner at night and practically walking into the owl on a fence post is a strong memory from my time abroad and I hoped to repeat the experience. 

When home for the holidays, of course, the time manages to slip away. My plans to visit museums were exchanged for movies on the couch and seeing friends. Christmas afternoon, while dinner was in the oven, my mother and I dashed to Montrose Harbor’s “Magic Hedge” in search of the owl. 
 The time of day was right – a warm, early evening – and the location was beautiful with pinks and purples streaking across the sky. What owl wouldn’t want to hang around and wait for us? Wandering through the paths, we spotted plump rabbits and familiar bird species. Cast-off white plastic bags in shrubs with deceptive owl shapes proved a disappointment. We stayed quiet, eyes peeled, hoping to spot a graceful and eerily silent owl. No such luck.
The owl had likely moved on in search of food. The life and travels of the snowy owl are determined by food availability. Reports of snowy owl populations moving south this winter have many Midwest birders excited.
I’ve been visiting the Magic Hedge most of my life and have watched the ecosystem change over the years. What began as a simple planting of honeysuckle surrounding army barracks in the 1950s, became a protected and significant rest stop for migratory birds crossing the Great Lakes. The city of Chicago’s Park District protects the land now from dogs, bikes, and recreational activities, opting instead for native plantings and quiet paths. Open grassland and wooded areas both are found on a spit of land that protrudes into the lake and provides a landing spot and nutrition for migrating birds. Sand dunes, a rare and delicate topography, have formed naturally on the lakefront over the last decade and continue to flourish. Every trip to the site offers new natural vistas for visitors and elusive hiding places for birds and small mammals. While I didn’t spot an owl that evening, I did enjoy a family tradition and every visit to the Magic Hedge is worthwhile. Videos and photographs of these marvelous birds will have to suffice for now.
Returning to my cozy home for a filling Christmas dinner, I thought how spoiled we were to have such ample and delicious food for our hungry bellies. I hoped the owl had found something to eat that evening, wherever it was. 
Christmas was wonderful this year. I reconnected with old friends and reveled in the quiet joys of the holiday. Hopefully your holiday was a wonderful celebration of people and traditions important to you, too.

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