January 20, 2012 by Joseph C. Neal
This is a winter when Snowy Owls that nest in the far, far north, come south for at least part of the winter. It’s not every winter, either. There are Snowy Owls in northern Missouri and north-central Oklahoma. For the past few weeks, I have included the Snowy Owl pursuit as part of my routine around Northwest Arkansas.
These are big owls, mostly white with dark accents. At a distance, lots of com- mon things can make this impression: Walmart bags in brush, bleached cow bones in a pasture, white Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission boundary signs around Chesney Prairie Natural Area, a white five-gallon bucket in weeds next to a pond, a light-colored ball of baling string hung up on a fence, a big white stump, Walmart bags in trees, even a very pale, young Red-tailed Hawk with its head tucked.
I’ve never seen a Snowy Owl except for an injured bird in the Portland zoo. Back there someplace in my mind that I don’t know well — the expansive terra incognita from which wells the magma of so many hard-to-describe feelings and desires – from that place, I feel the swells and exploratory energies of desire.
Then comes the information about a Snowy Owl in north-central Oklahoma. Out again comes the map. The owl could provide rationale for a holiday trip west, to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve into western Oklahoma and even all the way to the Black Mesa in the panhandle. We’re talking about 500 miles one way.
Amidst the fury of post-Christmas take- back-the-poor-fitting-or-unwanted-gift season, the weather looks good — sun, mild temps, and open roads. It’s like an escape. But to escape earth, you require a booster rocket big enough to overcome gravity. That’s Snowy Owl. For the susceptible person, it’s the booster aimed at a target big as the moon.
Four hours brings me to Ponca Na- tion. In 1877-1880, the Ponca tribe was forced into a deadly relocation from a reservation in Nebraska. On Highway 177, then west on county 156 to Marland — named for E. W. Marland, founder of Marland Oil, one of the giants in the early US oil industry — and a further three miles to County Road 150 and north a half-mile, give or take, toward Cowboy Road.
It’s a flat country, like the owl’s Arctic breeding grounds. You can see for 20 miles, including stacks and smoke from the Cono- coPhillips refinery above Ponca City, out over the huge harvested soybean fields and fresh green plantings of winter wheat. And finally first evidence of Snowy Owl: the birder congregation gathered in their birdy best and in full worship. Scopes, boots, hats, binoculars, cameras, standing around in clumps, with a general
orientation west, toward the bean field. Pulling up near them, we soon also have the big white owl of desire, way out in the soybean stubble. We nurture curiosity that has driven evolution in our species.