Saturday, December 24, 2011

Massive snowy owl is roosting at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport (KAZO) Kalamazoo, Michigan.

John A. Lacko | Gazette
A snowy owl has taken up residence at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport.

KALAMAZOO — An early Comair flight out of the Kalamazoo airport was briefly delayed Friday morning when a bird stubbornly held its ground on the taxiway before some aggressive shooing by airport workers prompted it to move far enough to allow a safe takeoff.

The massive snowy owl has taken up residence at the airport, delighting area birders and nonbirders alike by its rare presence this far south.

Airport employee Art Mortimer said the bird has been the talk of the building since Wednesday.

"The night guy, he saw it sitting on a fence a couple of nights ago,"Mortimer said. Workers at nearby Duncan Aviation have seen it during the day as well, he said.

"They're beautiful to see," said Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport Director Cliff Moshoginis. "But we have to keep it out of the way."

Todd Alfes, an avid birder and a volunteer in the Kalamazoo Nature Center bird banding operation, said several fellow airport employees approached him when he arrived at work Wednesday to report that they had spotted the huge white bird.

Alfes said he was able to locate the bird easily, and watched through binoculars from the airport windows throughout the day as the bird roosted on orange electrical boxes, occasionally turning its head.

"I notified the local 'bird mafia' late Wednesday morning and other members were able to confirm the sighting," Alfes said.

Richard Keith, director of Kalamazoo Valley Bird Observatory, said snowy owls venture south in some years, perhaps leaving their normal range around the North Pole when food is scarce there. Oddly, the owls seem to enjoy airports — several have been the object of study at Boston's Logan Airport.

"Airports are a lot like a tundra, look a lot like home," Keith said.

Lemmings and mice are the owls normal fare, Keith said, though the large birds can eat ducks and geese, an attractive feature to some airports, which are more bothered by those birds than by the owls, he said.

Snowy owls are the largest North American owls, and among the largest owls in the world; their wings can span 5-and-a-half feet.Their colors ranging from wite flecked with dark to pure snow white, Keith said.

That coloration is usually useful camouflage against its snowy surroundings.

"The white birds do stick out against our current backdrop, but I don't think that puts it at risk," Alfes said of Kalamazoo's visitor. "The bird is very large and equipped with massive claws."

The unusual owl is cause for excitement among birders, Alfes said. They are lining up against the airport fences hoping for a glimpse of the bird. The Audubon Society of Kalamazoo has sent emails to its members advising them of its presence. Others have posted the information on statewide bird alerts.

"Any time a birder sees a new bird, it is exciting," Alfew said. " After a couple years, birders have seen all the typical birds in their local area, so the only way to get that old excitement back is to find the occasional rare bird. That's what's going on for birders in this area now.

"It's a real rush.".

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