One of the prime benefits of living just a Great Lake away from the Canadian wilderness (e.g. Toronto) should be a bevy of winter birds. Every year, exotic owls and finches irrupt out of the vast boreal, often only as far as our northernmost counties. Well, if I lived any further north, I’d be eating Igunaq with Clare. So why aren’t there Gyrfalcons in my front lawn?

The big buzz up here has been waves of White-winged Crossbills along with a pair of Snowy Owls haunting the lake shore.  Seth and I took a run at these birds over the weekend. Regrettably, Durand-Eastman Park held no crossbills for us, nor any Bohemian Waxwings for that matter. Frankly, we were lucky to get out of there with a single Pine Siskin atop a tall spruce. Our owl chase was equally ill-fated; from the Charlotte Pier to Braddock Bay, we searched for snowies but found only Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, a lone Loon (Red-throated) , and lots and lots of gulls.  Still, winter hasn’t even officially arrived yet (which frightens me) so we hadn’t lost hope.

Fast-forward to this morning. My new Rochester friend Laura and I have been trying to meet to chase winter birds with a tentative plan for this weekend. Then, while on a conference call, I received an e-mail with the subject line “Enough Talk!” Seems she had a line on a snowy hunkered down in Buck Pond. In fact, this sighting promised to be one of the easiest great looks a person could have of a Snowy Owl. Laura, clearly no fool, decided to strike, as they say, while the owl was hot. Alas, I was stuck at work. Oh, the humanity!

Have no fear, friends. The bird was found and didn’t appear inclined to skedaddle so I gathered up my lucky Snowy Owl charm — my son, Mason — for a lunchtime launch. What makes Mason such an auspicious owl talisman? Well, for starters, he was there for the only other Snowy Owl I’ve ever seen in the wild, the celebrated Piermont Snowy Owl of January 2007. Plus, he just expressed interest in starting a life list… that’s my boy! So the idea of spending quality time with my son and Nyctea scandiaca was very attractive. But did the owl cooperate?

When we arrived at the appointed position, a cold gray pond fringed with ragged reeds, I felt that anxiety that rises up at the moment a rarity is supposed to appear. Will it be there or did it take off just five minutes ago (raise your hand if this has happened to you too!) Yet a quick scan of the shore set my mind at ease. Yes, there was a conspicuous spotty pile of snow where snow had not fallen…

Let’s look a little closer, shall we?

Now get really close!

So you can see that Rochester has delivered unto its newest birders a gift from the great white north. Let’s not get into the fact that my kid, not even five years old, has seen as many snowy owls as I have; the fact that the second species on his new list is one of the coolest birds either of us will ever encounter warms my heart on this frigid December day. Now bring on the winter finches!

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.