POLSON, Mont. — The last time Polson adventurer Marty Zajanc saw a snowy owl, he spent 10 years hiking more than 3,000 miles across Alaska and into the Arctic Circle to do it.
Last week, he drove a few blocks across town and found several.
"I think I recognized a couple of them," Zajanc says. "I could swear two of them winked at me."
Of course, finding snowy owls wasn't the purpose of his walk across Alaska. He did that to test the limits of his endurance.
But when Zajanc headed up to a little neighborhood above Skyline Drive here armed with still and video cameras, snowy owls were the only reason for the jaunt.
They're the reason hundreds of people have flocked here since the owls unceremoniously appeared last month.
"It's so funny — it's all I've been doing for three weeks now," Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute near Charlo said recently. "Every day I've got newspapers, TV stations and magazines large and small calling. I was on the phone with the New York Times yesterday. I've heard of people coming from Colorado, Utah, even Texas to see them. This morning four people from Livingston knocked on my door wanting to know where to find them."
When the Five Valleys Audubon Society in Missoula put out word it was sponsoring a trip this weekend for anyone interested in seeing the snowy owls, coordinator Rebecca Sills says she tried to cut off attendance at 70 people, then gave up and added a second trip after the list passed 100 names.
Victor Emanual Nature Tours of Austin, Texas, has quickly put together two tours to Montana for its clients who want to see snowy owls. They're scheduled for late January and early February.
Holt, whose work with snowy owls was the subject of the December 2002 National Geographic cover story, has been asked to lead them all.
"It's exciting and exhilarating," says Sills, a TogetherGreen fellow with the Audubon Society.
For Holt, who has traveled to the Arctic Circle to study snowy owls, part of the excitement that comes with the birds' wintertime appearance in the Mission Valley is that it's not just dedicated birders who want to see them.
People who might not give a marvellous spatuletail a second glance, much less know how rare it is to see one, get a kick out of observing snowy owls, and it's not hard to see why.
They're big (nearly two feet tall, with up to a five-foot wingspan). They're white (adult males are virtually pure white, while females and younger birds have some dark scalloping to their plumage).
And, Holt notes, they're not just birds.
"People like looking at owls," Holt says. "They flock to them."
It probably doesn't hurt that the popular, and fictional, Harry Potter kept a snowy owl — its name was Hedwig — as a pet.
"There's something about white animals that attracts people," Holt goes on. "They like polar bears, too. Is it that white represents purity? I don't know. I do know that where great horned owls, or short-eared owls, get interest, when you've got the great white owl of the North, people go crazy."
The presence of the snowy owls has brought lots of folks, ranging from birders to gawkers, to the little neighborhood on the south side of town that sits atop a hill overlooking Flathead Lake in one direction, and the Mission Valley in the other.
"One of our neighbors said we should be selling coffee or something," said one resident, George Mann.
Mann admits he didn't think much of it last month when another neighbor asked if he'd seen the "white owl" across the street.
"It was in a field between two houses, sitting on the back part on a fence post," Mann says. "I took a couple of pictures, but it was pretty far away."
Then, Mann noticed there was more than one white owl hanging around.
The first stranger he spied in the neighborhood, driving slowly, backing up occasionally, peering at rooftops and fence posts, turned out to be a birdwatcher from Idaho Falls.
"That started a little wildfire between all the bird guys," Mann says. "Within three or four days, there were three or four cars. There was one from Idaho, another from Spokane."
Now, people are starting to arrive in buses. Some who have come in private vehicles, Mann admits, don't seem to grasp the concept of private property and have parked in driveways or hiked through yards.
But the more he observes the owls and learns about them, the more Mann understands the draw.
"I'm not a big bird guy, but they're spectacular to watch," says Mann, who now often finds multiple snowy owls on his roof or deck railing. "They're big as an eagle, easy, and their claws are as big as a human hand. We have a (veterinarian) up here who owns a hawk, and the hawk's talons are a third the size of these guys'."
When Mann's wife, Nela, says she doesn't let the cat out of the house when the owls are around, it's not because she's worried about the owls, it's because she's worried they might snatch up her cat.
They've arrived not as a flock, but as a parliament — the correct name for any group of owls.
And, when it comes to snowy owls, the group can be referred to by a more spot-on name.
What you've got here, is a blizzard.
The Polson neighborhood above Skyline Drive is hardly the only place a blizzard of snowy owls has appeared this winter.
From the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, Americans and Canadians are spotting the magnificent animals from the Arctic Circle.
Why are they here, and in so many other locales at the same time?
In other places in the country, you'll often see someone quickly chalk it up to an alleged crash in the lemming population farther north.
But Holt, an expert in the field, isn't so sure.
"Food figures into it," he says, "but if you look at their plumage, you can tell they're coming off a very good food year somewhere."
Holt thinks it's more likely that the owls had such a good feeding year it turned into a good breeding year, and there are just a lot more snowy owls fanning out in search of more to eat.
"I think that's why there are so many," he says. "They had a good breeding year somewhere — maybe throughout the Arctic."
In addition to the upper reaches of North America, snowy owls can be found in Scandinavia, Siberia and Greenland.
While snowy owls feed primarily on lemmings and other small rodents — they swallow them whole — they also are known to hunt other birds (including other owl species) as well as rabbits, squirrels, foxes, raccoons and prairie dogs.
When Zajanc — the "j'' is silent and his name, perhaps appropriately, rhymes with "science" — drove across town to see the snowy owls, he strapped on his "bunny hat."
"It's a hat that looks like a rabbit," he explains. "I thought I'd try to capture the owls' attention, maybe do the stare-down thing."
On his 10-year journey across Alaska on foot, surviving on what food he could hunt, fish or find, Zajanc saw incredible sights: the insides of volcanoes, rivers filled with so many spawning salmon they ran bright orange, as many as 33 bears in a single day.
But in a land often covered in white, things white were often among the most special sightings of all. A white wolf. A white grizzly. A white rainbow created by the light of the moon reflecting through a nighttime rainstorm.
Snowy owls joined the A-list.
"One time I walked through this bit of brush and flushed one right into my face," Zajanc says. "He hovered there for a minute, eyes bulging, this huge five-foot wingspan right in front of me, and it was just mesmerizing. It was like so many times when I was walking across Alaska — one moment you feel like you're going to die, and the next there's this magical, beautiful moment."
The last snowy owl he saw was on the last day of the 10-year journey, accomplished in month-or-so-long segments each year, as he made his way along the Arctic Ocean toward Barrow in July of 2006.
It came shortly after an old Eskimo woman had warned Zajanc he would be eaten by a polar bear before he made it to Barrow, a prediction Zajanc admits haunted him that last day.
"It was flying around, and it would fly out over the water and sit on sea ice," he says. "I was worried about getting eaten by a polar bear, and watching it took my mind off that."
Zajanc doesn't know why blizzards of snowy owls have appeared from Washington to Maine this winter, including the two groups spotted in the Mission Valley, but he has his own theory on the motives of a few.
"I think a couple came down just to see where I live," he says with a laugh.
It's a good exchange. Now the rest of us can see them, too.
Holt says the snowy owls in the Mission Valley will likely fly north sometime in March.
When, or even if, they'll return, no one can say.
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com