CLEVELAND — It’s that time of year again when the lakefront begins to turn into an arctic tundra and the noise of recreational boats are replaced with the sound of a camera shutter muffled by the lashing wind as bird watchers and visitors keep a close watch on the arrival of the majestic arctic birds known as snowy owls.
That opportunity came for one local photographer when a Sunday morning presented good conditions (for December) — mild temps and a little wind — along the lakefront.
Gabe Leidy, a local photographer whose photos of wildlife and all things Cleveland have garnered him an Instagram following of more than 38,0000, is no stranger to sticking out the elements for a good shot, and getting one of the snowy owl is no exception.
With careful planning, understanding the dangers of such a trek and tons of experience, he took out his kayak out on the lake near Burke Lakefront Airport, where he saw not one but four different snowy owls perched along the break wall. It’s their mysterious behavior that keeps him looking forward to this time of year.
“My favorite part about capturing them is the mystique. There’s something so cool about encountering a creature in Northeast Ohio that hails from the Arctic Circle. Like seeing a polar bear with wings. It makes you wonder, ‘am I the first human being you’ve ever seen.’ Plus, they’re so darn beautiful,” Leidy said.
Sightings this year
Naturalists like Marty Calabrese, of the Cleveland Metroparks, look to the north as a warning call for their anticipated arrival. Their presence was reported near the southern reaches of Lake Huron and the western side of Lake Ontario, both on the Canadian side, during the weekend of Nov. 20-21.
"It was at that point the weekend before Thanksgiving, I think people started to tune in [to their forthcoming arrival],” Calabrese said.
It was on Sunday, Nov. 21 when a snowy owl was photographed sitting on a break wall at Lakeside Bike Park in Buffalo, NY. It wasn’t long after a snowy owl was seen along Cleveland’s lakefront. And that day did come, on Nov. 27, when a local bird watcher using a spotting scope spotted a snowy owl at Burke Lakefront Airport and then again on the break wall visible from the East 9th Street Pier.
From the arctic to the Land
When the snowy owls arrive in Cleveland, they generally tend to stick to the break wall and airport habitats as they generally resemble their native wide-open tundra habitat.
While their presence is predictable from year to year, the size of an irruption— a phenomenon that happens when snowy owls come flooding down from the north to a specific area, like Cleveland— is unpredictable.
One of Calabrese’s hypotheses is that there was plenty of food when they were breeding in the arctic. They end up with more young and they spill across Lake Erie.
“So, these large winter irruptions at our latitudes, so the Cleveland latitude at present, is thought to be due to good breeding conditions resulting in more juvenile migrants,” Calabrese said.
The largest irruption in the Northeast and the Great Lakes regions in a century was during the winter of 2013-14, according to data from Project SNOWStorm, a group dedicated to tracking snowy owls. Smaller irruptions happen, on average, every four or five years, with mega-irruptions happening once or twice in a lifetime.
This year there's only been a handful of snowy owls spotted along the lakefront. Calabrese said when it comes to counting the number of snowy owls, it's important to keep in mind that the same one or two snowy owls can be photographed from different locations.
Considered his favorite and best snowy owl footage ever, Calabrese filmed a snowy owl in the early part of 2021 from Wendy Park, of the Cleveland Metroparks.
How to identify them
Snowy owls are known for their piercing yellow eyes and white face, regardless if it’s a male, female or juvenile.
Calabrese said a key way to tell if it’s a male or a female or a juvenile is by its black specks on its body. On females and juveniles, there are black and brown specks that can be quite dense, giving the bird a salt-and-pepper look. Males tend to be whiter as they age.
Where to spot them
Before you go out and brave the elements to look for these majestic arctic visitors, Calabrese says visitors need to remember the three W’s of layering—wicking layer, the warming layer and the weathering layer.
If you want to spot these birds, Calabrese said he takes his children near Burke Lakefront Airport for a great vantage point. Those interested can drive along North Marginal Road, accessed from East 9th Street, to gate 11 or 12 for a chance to see a snowy owl perched along the shoreline.
"Peering north across the Burke runways, you have a good chance of spotting a two-foot-tall beast of an owl at ground level," Calabrese said. "This wide-open habitat mirrors their arctic tundra breeding and hunting grounds. If your owl prowl is a fail, the occasional plane launch and landings can also be impressive for kids young and grown."
Another rule of thumb when it comes to viewing wildlife in their natural habitat is to keep a respectable distance as to not disturb their presence.
For optimal viewing, visitors will need to bring their binoculars, as the owls blend in with the snow and ice. Visitors should look on top of harbor channel markers, break walls, marina docks and marina signs.
"Edgewater Marina is one of the best spots, East 9th Street Pier and East 55th Street Marina. They choose different places to sit during the day, so each day we have to go out and try to relocate them. It's a classic 'Where's Waldo' owl quest," Naturalist Jen Brumfield said in an interview with News 5 last year.
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