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Illinois hunting and fishing

Experts say birders should be on the lookout for snowy owls this winter. Photo by Chris Young.

Forecast is snowy this winter

December 30, 2011 at 09:25 AM

The State Journal-Register

For Illinois bird-watchers, it was a beautiful white Christmas.

That’s because snowy owls have been migrating south in fairly large numbers this winter, even pushing into central Illinois.

And more may be on the way.

Snowy owl sightings have been posted almost daily on the Illinois bird-watchers list serve, IBET, in recent weeks.

Just before Christmas, Jo Fessett of the Illinois Audubon Society saw a snowy owl just south of Havana on her regular commute into Springfield.

“I can’t believe nobody else stopped to look at it,” she says. The owl was sitting on a utility pole along Illinois 97.

Jacques Nuzzo of the Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur says his organization has been called to Champaign to look for a snowy owl hanging around a local airport.

And he’s also seen one near Forsyth, just north of Decatur.

“It’s probably the biggest snowy owl invasion in years,” says Steve Bailey, ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Snowy owls nest in the arctic, where they feed mostly on lemmings.

When the lemming population crashes, as it does every four to six years, young snowy owls are pushed farther and farther away from their home range in search of food.

Bailey said this year’s scenario is not typical.

The lemming population was high, leading to more young snowy owls being born.

“The owls’ broods become larger in good years,” he said. “They can have eight to nine young in good lemming years. But if most of the lemmings get eaten, the young have to go a long way to find food.”

Bailey says bird-watchers need to be responsible and not harass snowy owls that have flown up to 1,000 miles.

Hawks can soar for miles using thermal updrafts to keep them aloft.

Owls aren’t soaring birds, though, and must flap their wings to remain airborne — burning precious energy.

“There are a lot of people — out of ignorance at first because they don’t understand anything about the bird’s ecology,” Bailey says. “They don’t know how close they can get before it flushes.

“Owls act like you can get as close as you want, but give them 25 (to) 50 yards,” he says. “When approaching, do not approach directly.”

Some owls with little fear of people, like long-eared and saw whet owls, may allow people to approach closely, relying on their camouflage coloring to hide them.

“They need to save every ounce of energy they can, and that’s not happening with people flushing them constantly,” Bailey said.

This is a problem more often in urban settings with lots of birders looking for the same owl.

“Most people don’t know how to look and find their own owls,” Bailey said. “Once the owls are posted to the list serve, then everybody goes out to look for them.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

The perfect photo

Steve Bailey says if you’ve ever admired the perfect snowy owl photo with its talons outstretched towards the camera — don’t.
It’s probably not real.

Bailey says photographers in pursuit of better and better pictures to sell will do anything, including baiting owls with store-bought mice.

This winter, snowy owls are showing up in Illinois on a regular basis with more likely on the way.

Some years, few make the trip this far south.

“About the only one that showed up last year was right along the Carroll and Ogle County line,” says Bailey, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. “Professional photographers from other states were bringing boxes of mice to feed this owl a dozen mice a day to get fantastic pictures to sell to magazines.”

The problem is, mice could carry diseases harmful to the owls. And photographers could lure owls closer to roadways where they could be struck by vehicles.

Bailey says there is disagreement among photographers about the practice.
The debate continues on nature photography forums. Just search for: snowy owl baiting.

“There are a lot of photographers that think it is OK,” Bailey says. “And there is a minority trying to get the pictures more naturally, even if (the photographer) has to wait a few hours.

“Try to keep the bird’s welfare in mind.”

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