Thursday, January 26, 2012

A 'who's who' of majesty: Snowy owls at the Syracuse Hancock International Airport (KSYR), Syracuse, New York.

The patience Dr. Gregory Craybas learned as a dentist also serves him well as a wildlife photographer.  

Craybas, whose office is in downtown Syracuse, often stays in one place for hours at a time to capture great images of, say, a bald eagle at the Montezeuma National Wildlife Refuge.

Every now and then, hard work leads to good luck.

So it was for Craybas this month at Syracuse Hancock Airport, where area birders had been expressing joyous disbelief about what they describe as a phenomenon: separate sightings of at least three snowy owls at the airport. Owl enthusiasts across the region grabbed their cameras and headed for spots along the airport fence where visitors are allowed to keep watch.

Craybas joined them. He has learned to scan the landscape carefully for owls — from a distance, as Syracuse raptor expert Tom Carrolan likes to say, it’s easy to mistake a “snowy” for a grocery bag or a plastic jug. The owls are nocturnal, and Carrolan said they’ll often sit by day for hours in an open place, “like a Buddha.”

On his first airport visit, Craybas got a few shots from long-range. One morning, on a whim, he went back. A snowy owl, apparently a young male, was perched atop a light post, not far from the airport entrance. Craybas got a rare chance to fully appreciate the 5-foot wing span, the golden eyes and the stunning white plumage speckled with a few dark spots.

 “With the airport, you’re in that very condensed and very familiar area, and then to see something that’s not from here ... it just takes you to a different place,” Craybas said. “You just feel a lot of emotion, and a lot of respect going back and forth.”

That reaction is shared by anyone lucky enough to be part of this unusual burst of snowy owl sightings. The great birds, native to the Arctic, are occasionally seen in the northern U.S. Yet as the New York Times reported recently, this winter has been different. Bird experts speak of an “irruption” of snowy owls, some turning up as far west as Kansas.

Bill Purcell of Hastings is regional coordinator for, a global web site run jointly by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon that records and tracks bird sightings. “This is pretty unusual,” said Purcell, of the owls at Hancock. “Nobody’s ever reported (so many) in that area in the past.”

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