The Snowy Owl of Salmonier

In 1973, a group of forward thinking people began to build this boardwalk through the Newfoundland forest. 20140901-DSCN2643

By 1978 the boardwalk snaked through almost 100 acres of spruce and firs, flirting with the Salmonier River and its surrounding wetlands at every turn. This was the year that Salmonier Nature Park was opened to the public. The original developers imagined a nature walk, a true Newfoundland experience, that showcased native species in a manner that mimicked organic life. It was to be the opposite of a zoo. Simple fences that were but a blink away from moose, foxes, eagles, and martens, among other creatures.

In the summer, the humid woods are an amphitheater for the thumping mating calls of frogs and the laughing of Canada Geese. Run-off from the snow rakes itself through the blueberry bushes and into fens lush with cattails. The change of season from summer to autumn is marked by a color metamorphosis of the fox pelage and by a fine sheet of frost coating the boardwalk in the early hours of the day. This is my favorite time to visit.

One of the primary goals of the park was to minimize the isolation between people, especially youth, and nature. I have watched my students, many of them born on the island, marvel at the woods that they came from and all the life that the trees keep concealed.

For me, the first part of the walk is the truest to my perception of the island. Through a gate into a scarcely enclosed space, the boardwalk winds across a thinly wooded section of grass. This is the home of the park's well-fed Snowy Owl. Part of the intrigue of seeing a Snowy Owl is that you always remember just what you were thinking when you spotted it. It is a startling symbol of a moment that belongs to you.

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I saw my first Snowy Owl perched in an Aspen tree growing from the bank of the North Fork of the Gunnison River in Colorado. It was a fledgling owl covered in brand new feathers and it was motionless. I recall the steam rising from slowly churning water and the jagged edges of ice jutting a foot out from the shoreline. I remember thinking that the bird looked like it didn't belong and then reconsidering and deciding that maybe I didn't. It was 5:30 in the morning and I was with my father. I can imagine the sting of the cold in my gloves from slipping with a duck decoy and dipping my hand into the river.

The owl gives the park somewhere to land in people's memories. It provides a connection between the rock and the folks that have lived here for generations. Now 40,000 people visit per year from many parts of the world to experience this and keep a Newfoundland moment for themselves. The full-figured female Snowy Owl at Salmonier Nature Park is among my most highly recommended Newfoundland birds. More than anything though, I recommend walking straight into the nearest woods and finding something hidden in the trees.

Sinister Song

You've seen a horror movie before. You know the drill. A couple goes camping in the middle of a swamp full of alligators and right before one of them becomes a snack, you hear a reel of "chilling nature noises" from the age-old hollywood stockpile of avian and insect recordings. One of these sounds comes from the Common Loon and I'm betting you've heard it before. The most commonly recognized call is the "wail" and the acoustic properties of this call allow it to travel through foggy forested environments. Here in Newfoundland, we have more forest and more fog than you can begin to dream up. We also have more than one species of loon. The Red-throated Loon stops by the island for breeding as well but I have yet to spot one. You'll be the first to know when I do. I have linked a video which includes quality recordings of the "wail" call at the end of this post.

I spotted the Common Loon below in a tiny pond near Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, NL. See if you can distinguish his bright red eyes.

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Loons have very interesting feet. Picture a duck's foot and then expand the webbing. Now expand it again. An adult Common Loon (6 - 10 lbs.) has feet that in no way look proportionate to its body. This is, of course, directly related to its method of eating and landing prey. Check out this photo of someone banding a loon so that you can get an idea of how large the legs and feet can be.

Loon foot

The following video/audio is courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Macaulay Library.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ENNzjy8QjU]

See you soon with a very special guest, the Snowy Owl!