Owl Teacher


(This 1246th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 8, 2015.)


Bliss Road Owl

painting by Melissa Mance Coniglio


Melissa Mance Coniglio is an artist who teaches art in the Byron-Bergen Central Schools and whose heart was captured by the first snowy owls she saw last winter near the Genesee County airport in Batavia.


She soon learned that these were just two of an unusual number of these birds, whose lives are normally spent in their home range around Hudson and James Bays but that had come south in an unusual incursion. Melissa decided that she would try to see and photograph many of these beautiful owls. And so began a year of driving back roads looking for owls before and after school that added over 30,000 miles to her car odometer. She spoke recently about her experiences to the Buffalo Ornithological Society, her talk not only including many photographs but also some of her paintings.


Melissa and David banding


Early on, Melissa met bird bander David Genesky who sought to band these owls and they formed an alliance. She not only passed on information about where she found the owls but she also assisted in banding some of them once they were trapped.


Perhaps more important was the influence her search had on Melissa's teaching. The word spread through her school about how she was looking for the white owls and she was soon better known among her students and colleagues school-wide as the Owl Teacher.


When I asked her recently about this, she told me, "Even today I had a fifth grade student come to me with a report of an owl on the barn near their house. They still come to me when they see them. Many have seen them this year at the Genesee Airport and come in to school very excited to tell me. It is thrilling to see them so engaged in the natural world. Even the bus drivers give me reports of owls. For some reason the area of my district had many owls last year. All of the adults and children in the school were looking for them. I had a sign on my door recording the number I had seen and the kids were watching the count closely. They were rooting for me to reach 100 but I only made it to 89. One of the rules of the count was that these birds were only in New York State and most of them came from western New York."

She continued: "One second grade student saw his first owl with his family near his house. He came in so excited and told me that he named the owl 'Snowy Buddy'. Another large family of kids went out sledding. When they reached their backyard an owl that had been roosting on their house flew right over them. They were thrilled at the experience. And kids were seeing owls sitting up on poles as they rode the bus to school. I could imagine them sitting sleepily riding the bus looking out over the snow covered landscape and being surprised as they suddenly stared into a pair of gold owl eyes. I encouraged them by creating owl artwork and staging an owl art 'invasion' in the school."


A few of the banded owls last winter were also mounted with backpack electronics so that their future location could be monitored. Maps of their movements are to be found at Scott Weidensaul's Project SNOWstorm website. Some have returned in what has been termed an echo incursion this winter.


Some of Melissa's owl paintings are among those of the Guild of Nature Science Illustrators display at the Cumming Nature Center in Naples. Others are at her website.-- Gerry Rising