Open Mic: Searching for Snowy Owls in Ohio

At the mic: Joey Tomei
Joey Tomei is a 16-year-old birder from Dublin, Ohio. He has had a strong interest in both birds and aviation for as long as he can remember. His favorite bird is the American Crow. Joey is actively involved with the Ohio Young Birders Club, where he serves as a member of the Youth Advisory Board. He has birded in Delaware, New Jersey, Colorado, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica, and plans to travel to Panama this summer. Joey is a member of the Caesar Creek Soaring Club, where he is learning to fly sailplanes for his glider pilot’s license. He has also begun the flight training program at the Ohio State University Airport to obtain his private pilots license for airplanes.

At the beginning of this year, I remembered missing the chance to spot a Snowy Owl when the bird stormed across the United States the previous winter, so I was determined to see one of these birds this winter. On New Year’s Day, I logged onto eBird and viewed the map for Snowy Owl sightings in Ohio. There were few near my town in central Ohio; however, there were consistent sightings of the bird up north in Cleveland. Unfortunately, it would have taken me two hours to drive to the city, and it was already late. I decided I would take the risk and begin the trip the next day.
The next morning, I ate breakfast and prepared my DSLR camera and binoculars. Before leaving, I contacted Jen Brumfield, an ABA leader that I met at Camp Colorado last summer. She was familiar with the Cleveland area and gave me some tips on the best locations to see the Snowy Owl. She told me that there were two possible locations called Fairport Harbor and Burke Lakefront Airport. I decided to drive to the airport first and visit the other location if I had no luck at the airport. Once I arrived at the airport, I realized that there were few spots that had a good view of the field between the runways, so I went inside the main building. Once there, I asked one of the flight clubs where I could see a Snowy Owl. They sent me to the man that monitored the security cameras at the airport, and he had a powerful set of binoculars. He was very familiar with the owl and why people wished to see it.
We scanned the runways and fields in search of the owl. At the same time an American Kestrel came into view and hovered above the grass looking for prey. After seeing the kestrel, we spotted a white lump that might have been the owl, but we could not be certain; it also could have been a plastic bag. To verify that it was indeed the owl, the man looked at one of the cameras that had a close view of the lump. Sure enough, it was a Snowy Owl! He said he could take me in one of the airport’s SUVs onto the taxiways to have a closer view of the bird. I gladly accepted because access to the airfield was restricted. As we approached the owl, I could see it looking at us with its yellow eyes, even without the use of optics. I took as many pictures as I could, and we returned back to the main building. I expressed my thanks to this man for helping me get an amazing view of the owl.

Photo by Joey Tomei

Photo by Joey Tomei

After seeing the owl, I decided not to press my luck and headed home since I still had a long drive back home. This sighting of the Snowy Owl was my 300th life bird. I hope to add many more birds to my life list throughout the rest of this year.