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By Ian Thompson
SUISUN CITY - The large, white feathered visitor from the arctic simply stared from its piling in Suisun Bay as a half-dozen birders snapped pictures of what they described as a once-in-a-lifetime find Thursday.
"That is awesome," said birder Daryl Coldren of the immature Snowy Owl which would normally be found in the Arctic tundra.
The raptor was first spotted by a fisherman on Tuesday where Grizzly Island meets Suisun Bay and Internet postings between bird watchers, or birders, quickly drew others to the area.
It became enough of a problem that the owner of the land which the owl is temporarily calling home posted no-trespassing signs telling the birders to stay off his property.
That's when Capt. Dan Thiemann and his 45-foot touring boat the California Sunset entered the picture.
Several birders approached Thiemann and rented his boat to get as close to the shoreline as possible to spot the owl.
"This is the one time in our lives that we will see this bird in California," said Thiemann, caught up in the excitement of finding the owl. "I never thought I would be this pumped up about seeing a rare bird. It's made a birder out of me."
The first attempt on Wednesday failed. Thiemann repeatedly edged his boat into the shallower portions of Suisun Bay only to come up empty without a glimpse of the distinctive raptor.
The threat of rain didn't put off a half dozen birders to try again Thursday. They headed into Suisun Bay on a rising tide to find the owl. The bird has been less than a dozen times ever in central California, they said.
"They usually never come this far south," said birder Andy Lacasse of Petaluma. "They only come this far when their food supply gets scarce and it is usually the younger ones."
Also known as the Arctic Owl or the Great White Owl, the large bird is usually found in the Arctic and Northern Canada where it preys on lemmings and other rodents.
They have been reported as far south as Texas and the Gulf States, but those are rare sought-after sightings, according to birders.
Coldren was on a bus heading back to Humboldt State University from visiting his family in Sacramento when he heard about the owl sighting. He stopped in Arcata only long enough to grab his bird watching gear and turned right around.
"I missed last year's sighting by a day," Coldren said.
A reported second sighting gave the birders a more precise location - a couple of pilings about a mile from the mouth of the Suisun Slough.
"Yesterday, we didn't know where we were going," Thiemann said.
On the voyage down the slough, the birders spent their time pointing out all the other species - turkey vultures, white pelicans, tree swallows, tundra swans, wild geese and a host of duck species.
As the California Sunset nosed into Suisun Bay, Thiemann was more visibly excited that the birders.
"If they find it, I am going to be on owl patrol," Thiemann said of the possibility of running additional snowy owl-watching tours.
At 11:30 a.m., the birders hit paydirt.
At first they saw "a white thing that could be a gull," said birder Chet Ogun of Eureka. As the boat slowly moved closer, the young snowy owl emerged.
"That's our bird," Ogun triumphantly announced. "It is facing away from us."
As if realizing it had an audience, the Snowy Owl turned around and stared at the birders who were then about 40 feet away taking pictures, calling friends and posting their photos on the Internet.
"Look at his feet. They are red. That's blood," Lacasse said. "He must have just caught a vole or something."
The pleased birders expect the owl to stick around awhile before it heads back north.
Thiemann fielded phone calls from birders throughout the voyage back, getting enough people to organize three more runs to look at the owl.
Several birders triumphantly marked the sighting in their bird books, saying this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see a snowy owl.