Unusual Spike in Snowy Owl Sightings

On Dec. 5, this snowy owl made an appearance in Albany, Oregon, a state that rarely sees birds of this kind. The birds have been seen across the nation this winter.    David Patton, Associated Press

It’s got to be good news if it makes Section A of the NY Times, even on a Monday!

We’ve come a long way in wildlife awareness when a Snowy Owl gets a half-page, right-side spread with a five-column photograph (who wouldn’t like that kind of press??) at the top of page A11 opposite National News plumb in the middle of election year politics.

The article can be seen, although less impressively, and read in its entirety on the NYTimes’ website, and makes for great reading amidst the welter of political blarney dominating our recent news.  Some inspired editor thought it newsworthy to wing in Mother Nature’s white-plumed messenger to tell us that in spite of all, she is still alive and well and willing to surprise and delight.

After all, “Hope is the thing with feathers” (“…that perches in the soul,”) wrote Emily Dickinson, and interestingly we have quite a few harbingers of hope landing on our several doorsteps.  They are being seen from Boston to the Great Lakes, the Ohio River Valley, Kanas, Vancouver and Seattle.

Stepping around the purely symbolic and going straight to the facts,  the article is more perplexed than hopeful.  The white, two-foot-tall birds which live in the Arctic the rest of the year, are known to fly south in large numbers every few winters in what is known as an irruption, but this year the numbers are unusually high.

Regretably, “One showed up at the airport in Hawaii and they shot it” said Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Montana.  “It’s the first ever in Hawaii and they shot it.”  So much for hope, at least in Hawaii.  Elsewhere the reception was equally enthusiastic but less malefic.

Unlike many owls, the snowy variety are diurnal, or active during the day making them more available to scrutiny than their nocturnal cousins.   Their blinding white coloring and piercing yellow eyes are a magnet for birders and nonbirders alike.  Think Hedwig, the faithful owl companion of Harry Potter…

Ninety have shown up in Kansas this winter and 40 in Missouri (8 was the highest count previously) delighting the hundreds of people who travel to see them.  Additional hot spots include sightings of 10 to 13 in Washington State, 20 in South Dakota,  30 in Vancouver B.C.,  21 at Logan Airport in Boston  where, thank Hedwig, they were not shot.

Mr Holt suggests that the great draw of the snowy owl may be partly due to a fascination with the birds’ coloring.  “White wolves, polar bears, white whales, there is something about white plumage that signifies innocence or purity,” he said.  “People don’t flock to see any other animal the way they do white ones.”

Emily Dickinson and I could have said as much.

Snowy Owl at Northeast Philadelphia Airport 2-1-12

I saw my first Snowy, pictured here, while doing my field research at PNE airport. He had been hanging around the airfield, usually next to the cone, which I believe he used to hide from his prey. The open spaces of airfields are perfect habitat for them. Unfortunately, as in the caes of Hawaii, airfields are not a safe place for birds, for obvious reasons.

The belief is that snowy owls have been driven south in search of food.

I was at the same airport today, and saw 23 pure white Tundra Swan migrating northward — a real thrill and very unusual for Philadelphia per Frank Windfelder, former president of DVOC (Delaware Valley Ornithological Club), who was with me on both occasions. Frank took the picture of this owl.

© 2012, Christina Kobland. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    A month or so our paper reported multiple sightings of Snowy Owls — on rooftops and chimneys of homes along the water just north of Bellingham. We get sizeable numbers in the area, mostly along Boundary Bay just across the border on the way to Vancouver, BC, every few years. But as you say, the numbers were greater this year. I didn’t go out looking for them but lots of other local folks did.
    Mark Turner recently posted..Chuckanut Falls

    • Lloyd Borer says

      Really a question rather than a comment… Are the much increased sightings of the Snowies due to low populations of lemmings in their more usual habitat, requiring them to range further south in their search for prey? I’ve read that lemming populations are cyclical; are we at the low end of their cycle? If this is the case, is global warming a factor? If any dead ones are found (in the continental U.S., a post-mortem should be done to see if it was starving.

      • says

        As I understand it, this is a perfectly normal phenomenon–irruptions happen every few years, and we get a wave of them coming south. It’s probably to do with lemmings and weather, but it’s been going on for a long time and isn’t particularly detrimental to the owls.
        UrsulaV recently posted..Amplexus!

  2. says

    There’s been a big irruption in the snowy owls this year, which is just so awesome for those of us farther south! I was lucky enough to travel to Seattle a few weeks ago and spot two snowies hunting over a field at dusk. Even though they were a long way off, it was still marvelous (and hey! Life bird!)
    UrsulaV recently posted..Amplexus!

  3. says

    Christina, I so enjoyed this terrific article! I love, love the Emily Dickenson quote! “. . . and sings the tune without the words . . .” I so hope your turf works!! It is a great tragedy that those in charge in Hawaii could not have tried to remove or scare the Snowy Owl off. I have heard of more than a few plane crashes due to bird impact. These are such striking birds! I have never seen one but there was one in our area of Western Massachusetts years ago. I do not know what it is about white creatures . . . even a horse but they do stand out in beauty. Though with a white and black stallion side by side, I would have a hard time choosing which was more stunning. I recently sighted a white robin here and was amazed at its beauty. I do wonder what makes these owls come down in larger numbers this year? I would guess food supply . . .
    Carol Duke recently posted..Flower Hill Farm BUTTERFLIES OF 2011 ~ Favorite Viceroy


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