Marc C. Damman
A snowy owl is spotted above downtown Madison, Wisconsin.
Over the week between Christmas and New Year's weekends, the e-mails started flying: There is a snowy owl wintering in downtown Madison. From the lists of the Madison Audubon Society and other birdwatchers, word of the rare and iconic raptor has quickly made its way to Wisconsin media outlets and Harry Potter fandom alike over the last two weeks.
How did this frenzy get started?
It started with the Findorff construction crew at University Square spotting the owl atop the cranes towering over the mixed-use redevelopment project located between Johnson Street and University Avenue at Lake Street. "It's been around for the last three weeks," says project superintendent Jim Kalscheur, and has taken to perching atop the crane located nearest Lake Street, particularly when it is in motion.
"There were two owls originally," Kalscheur notes, though only one has continued to frequent the construction site over the last couple of weeks. "That's the one that rides the crane when it spins," he says.
On Dec. 20, Kalscheur asked the project's onsite safety supervisor, Marc C. Damman, to go atop the crane and snap a photo of the snowy owl. "It's just been sitting and swinging with the crane every day for two weeks," says Damman. What he photographed quickly became a sensation, a direct view of the bird perched atop the crane with the Madison lakes and skyline as a backdrop and the State Capitol directly behind it.
This photo and news of the owl quickly spread through birding circles and beyond, and has unsurprisingly picked up a sobriquet of "Hedwig" among its many fans. (Observers have speculated that the bird may be female due to its spotted brown coloring.)
"The photo originated from my office," says Kalscheur. "We e-mailed it to a couple of people," he explains, and from there the owl photo has blossomed as a midwinter diversion. "It's created quite a stir," Kalscheur continues. "We've got all kinds of people seeing it."
Bird photographer Mike McDowell has also recently captured images of a snowy owl spending the winter near Madison. The bird typically lives above the Arctic Circle, venturing south during the winter in pursuit of its rodent prey. They have been seen throughout the continental U.S., though most regularly in more northerly climes, including Wisconsin.
McDowell found his owl a year ago on Middleton's Pheasant Branch Road. On Jan. 2, 2006, McDowell captured numerous shots of the bird shortly after learning about it. He wrote:
I made a mad dash out the door with my digiscoping gear in tow, picked up Jesse on the way out of Waunakee and drove to the spot where Becky was waiting along Pheasant Branch Road. Sure enough, there was the beautiful SNOWY OWL perched atop a utility pole.
I angled my car to the side of the road so I could point my spotting scope and camera out the passenger side window, distancing myself about 50 yards from the owl. The car really does make an excellent blind and luckily for me there was barely any traffic because of the football game.
It had been raining most of the day and the owl's facial feathers looked a little wet. The wind whipped its tail, flapping its feathers like a tattered flag. We didn't stay long and left the owl alone so it could resume its hunting.
This year's Hedwig is still hanging around the campus cranes, though it's unlikely that the owl will be visible on the University Square project webcam. To catch a view, your best bet is to try to get a look from atop adjacent parking garages -- along with an increasing number of avid birdwatchers.