Snowy owls swoop southward, delight birders
Associated Press Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Biologists say an increase in snowy owl sightings across northern states suggests that the arctic species did so well on its northern breeding ground last year that competition is driving the young ones south.
The showy white owls of Harry Potter fame are spotted in small numbers in upstate New York and other northern states every winter. But this year, they arrived earlier and in greater numbers than usual, said John Ozard, a biologist at the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation.
They’ve also been spotted farther south, in states where they’re rarely seen.
In Tennessee, birders armed with spotting scopes and telephoto lenses scrambled from as far away as Georgia and Alabama to see the first snowy owl reported in that state in 22 years. The owl showed up in early December in the fields surrounding a General Motors plant in Spring Hill. Sightings were still being posted on the Tennessee Ornithological So ciety’s Web site in late January.
Birding hotlines lit up in northern Virginia with the sighting of a young male snowy owl in early December. The bird later died after it was found, sick and weak, and brought to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.
Rarely seen south of northern Ohio, snowy owls have also been reported this year in Kansas and Missouri, according to the eBird.org national bird reporting Web site.
Illinois has had numerous sightings. The latest were two reported by Bob Fisher of Downers Grove at the LaSalle Com Ed nuclear plant in LaSalle County. Reports Fisher: “One was located on a rise in a field west of E2500, between N1800 and N1900. The other was on the RR tracks on the north side of N2000, between E2600 and E2700. If you’re still using a DeLorme, those road locations shown above are roughly in the center of page 35, a couple of miles south of LaSalle Lake and the power plant.”
Snowy owls nest on the ground in the Arctic tundra and many of them stay there year-round, while some winter in Canada and the northern United States. They tend to show up in greater numbers in the U.S. every three to five years, pushed by crashes in the population of lemmings, the hamster-like mainstay of their diet.
But that doesn’t appear to be the reason for this year’s influx.
“This year it appears the lemming population was really good,” said Laura Erickson, a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca. “When le mmings are abundant, snowy owls have a very successful breeding season.”
As a result, the owl population grows so large that many of the young males move farther south to stake out feeding territory.
Snowy owls aren’t uncommon in winter in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but they’re far more plentiful than usual this year, Erickson said. At the airport in Minneapolis, biologists have had to trap and move snowy owls for fear they’d be sucked into a jet engine, she said.
“As birds of the tundra, they’re drawn to large open fields like airports,” Erickson said.
Some of the owls won’t make it back to the arctic, as they’re prone to collisions with cars and electrocution on power lines, Erickson said. “They also tend to fall down chimneys,” she said. “We’ve had many cases in Minnesota of people finding a snowy owl in their fireplace.”
In the Albany area, the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club’s online discussion group has had numerous postings on snowy owl sightings s ince mid-November, including one that roosted for several days on the state Capitol.
Another snowy perched for several days on a tall building across the street from the conservation department headquarters, where employees set up spotting scopes to watch it from upper-floor offices. That owl later died of a parasitic infection, most likely picked up from eating pigeons, Ozard said.
The birds are easily spotted because of their striking white plumage and habit of sitting on a prominent lookout spot, such as a power pole or building, before swooping down on prey in broad daylight.
In December, a kayaker spotted one on the beach of Long Island Sound in Connecticut, Ozard said.
“I saw my first snowy owl when I was walking along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago,” Erickson said. “It flew right along the sidewalk, hunting for ducks on the shoreline.”
The increase in southerly sightings is most likely a temporary phenomenon. Back in the arctic next summer, t he larger population of owls may devour so many lemmings that food scarcity will bring the owl population back down, Erickson said.