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I was out hunting last weekend (end of October) near Yellow Pine, Idaho. While walking up a hill during the late morning with moderate timber coverage (thin enough to ski comfortably but thick enough to prevent grass from growing) I spotted a large owl sitting on a branch about 20 feet above the ground. It was really fun to see the owl. The owl was large (roughly 18 to 24 inches tall) with a white face. The feathers appeared to be white with light brown tips giving the bird a banded look. It had a large wingspan too at approximately 4 to 5 feet wide. We tried to take a picture of the owl with my father's cellphone but the picture didn't turn out because the bird was in the shadows.

This morning I turned to the internet for help identifying the owl. In this Owls of Idaho resource the only owl that looks close is the Snowy Owl. The owl we saw seemed to have a wider/bulky body, and more dense brown banding. When I did a photo search on snowy owls I found a National Geographic Kids picture that looks much closer to what we saw. The owl in the NatGeo picture looks smaller than the bird I saw but that could just be a trick of the camera.

Normally I'd be comfortable declaring I saw a Snowy Owl since that NatGeo picture looked reasonably close to what I saw. My only lingering doubt is because we saw the bird in a moderately dense pine forest. All the resources I've seen on the internet state that snowy owls prefer open terrain. Here is a quote from the Owls of Idaho resource:

When snowy owls come south, they may be found on open ground (such as marshes, meadows or prairies)

The NatGeo article states:

These large owls mainly live in the Arctic in open, treeless areas called tundra. Snowy owls perch on the ground or on short posts. From there they patiently watch for prey.

It seems like the terrain that I spotted the owl in doesn't fit with these descriptions of the snowy owl's preferred territory. Are there any other owls that can be found in Idaho that I might be confusing for a snowy owl? Alternatively are snowy owls known to frequent moderately timbered hill sides in Idaho instead of more open terrain?

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    Now this is a model question! – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Oct 31 '17 at 16:13
  • @Sue yes it was the 4th pic that looks closest to what I saw. I believe the wings were white underneath. I spotted the bird because it flew about 7 feet away from me to another tree. Then a few minutes later it flew parallel to me to another branch. That second little flight is where I had the opportunity to see under the wings. The face and under the wings were the only two places of pure white that I recall. Otherwise it was the banded light brown plumage. For what it's worth the face seemed flatter than the pictures I've seen online. That might just be my eyes playing tricks though. – Erik Oct 31 '17 at 23:16
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    @OlinLathrop gee I thought everyone had access to the internet. Next thing you'll be telling me is they don't have access to quality healthcare. ;) – Erik Nov 1 '17 at 15:20
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    @Erik One might say that their healthcare is pretty owlfull – Reinstate Monica Nov 2 '17 at 1:17
  • The main other option is probably a different owl with some form of albinism, or possibly an escaped captive bird not from North America (although I don't think there even are any, just more snowy owls). Snowy Owl sounds the most logical. – Monster Jan 11 '18 at 6:41
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As the Sherlock Holmes would say,

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

If you look through the list of owls in Idaho, or the list of owls in North America you will notice that the only white owl is the Snowy Owl. It seems far more likely that you saw a snowy owl in a forest where it was temporarily passing through, than you saw a different species that no one else has seen.

There aren't many trees in the arctic,

As well as being the area within the Arctic Circle, the Arctic can also be defined as being the area above the "treeline" (farther north than trees can grow), where there is only tundra and the Arctic Ocean.

Source

Snowy owls nest in the Arctic tundra of the northernmost stretches of Alaska, Northern Canada, and Eurasia. They winter south through Canada and northern Eurasia, with irruptions occurring further south in some years. Snowy owls are attracted to open areas like coastal dunes and prairies that appear somewhat similar to tundra.

Source

so its not like they have much choice when they are up north to be in a wooded areas and once they come south it makes sense that they would stick to areas that look similar to what they are used to.

With that said, they probably wouldn't avoid trees if they had the chance, to avoid predators and all. It could have just been passing through.

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The only possible confusion species would be barn owl. Yellow Pine is near the limit of barn owl range, and barn owl is very noticeably slimmer (not more plump) than snowy owl, so I think you're right in calling it a snowy.

Most snowy owls that head into the lower 48 states in the winter are 1st-winter birds, which are more heavily marked than most adults, which fits your description perfectly. An owl perched up in a tree would likely fluff up to increase the insulating effect of its feathers, which explains why it looked bigger than expected.

Snowy owls sometimes irrupt southward in substantial numbers (unpredictably), so it will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a big winter for snowies. That's a really nice find.

  • Barn owls have very distinct faces so it would be hard to confuse the two. – Reinstate Monica Nov 2 '17 at 1:18
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I have heard of a snowy owl in Pennsylvania.

I was walking down a corridor in a college domitory and saw a stuffed snowy owl in a room. The kid there said the owl dropped dead in a field in Pennsylvania.

In years where many snowy owls migrate farther south than usual they have sometimes been seen as far south as Hawaii, the US gulf states, and Bermuda.

Therefore, Idaho doesn't seem so far south that there would be any need to wonder what other type of owl could be so large and so white as the one you saw.

The Project SNOWstorm site claimed that 2017-2018 would see a big irruption of snowy owls into the USA, and they certainly tagged and fitted transmitters on a bunch of them during the season.

https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/snowstorm-at-4/1

So I don't see much of a reason to doubt the identification of your sighting as probably a snowy owl.

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