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Post Falls photographer seizes snowy owl irruption opportunity

Eleven snowy owls, one heavily barred and grayish, are in this image from Boundary Bay near Vancouver, British Columbia.
Eleven snowy owls, one heavily barred and grayish, are in this image from Boundary Bay near Vancouver, British Columbia.

Sandy Milliken proved that wildlife photographers are a hungrier version of the common birdwatcher by going the distance to make pictures of snowy owls.

Failing to find the snowies reported this season within a few miles of her Post Falls home, Milliken filled her vehicle gas tank and redoubled her efforts.

She was determined to seize the opportunity provided by this winter’s stand-out migration of snowy owls.

The white birds catch the attention of birders almost every winter as they scatter in ones and twos south from the arctic to winter hunting grounds that extend into the northern United States.

They come from tundra regions where humans are scarce, but they have little fear of human activity. Boston’s Logan Airport typically has New England’s high count for snowy owls tallied in a winter.

Snowy owls, popularized by Hedwig in the Harry Potter movies, have been winter visitors to the Inland Northwest for a long, long time.

But this year’s nation-spanning migration is a well-publicized owl-apalooza.

“I was a little frustrated because I wasn’t finding what I wanted around here,” Milliken said, referring to the Spokane region.

A tip from a Bellingham photographer steered her toward a seven-hour drive to the driftwood beaches along Boundary Bay in British Columbia just southwest of Vancouver. The last irruption of snowies to congregate there occurred in 2007, birders say.

“My friend was getting great photos of snowy owls and he told me right where to go (south of the Boundary Bay Airport),” she said. “But the wind and rain was horrible there for weeks through the holidays. I waited until there was a break in the weather. Last week I went for it.”

Fog and drizzle greeted her arrival, along with a mother lode of snowy owls.

“I counted 26 snowy owls as I walked a path along one marsh the size of two city blocks,” she said.

She pounced on one big, brief moment to capture 11 snowy owls in a single frame through a 100-400mm zoom lens.

There are 10 mature white snowy owls and one heavily-barred darker snowy owl – likely a female – in the background, she said.

Milliken said she came home from Boundary Bay with images that will take her weeks to sort.

“Out of thousands of photos, that group shot is one worth remembering,” she said.

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