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A snowy owl perches on a fence post north of Rudyard, Mont. on Nov. 28, 2012. Arctic snowy owls are eye-catching with brilliant white coats and 5-foot wing spans. They are turning heads again in some locations in the northwest United States this year, including western and north-central Montana. (AP Photo/The Great Falls Tribune, Rion Sanders)

Snowy owls returning to northern Montana

December 08, 2012 at 12:14 PM

The Associated Press

RUDYARD, Mont. (AP) — The large white bird with black markings on its feathers, perched on a fence post in northern Montana, scanned a snow-covered wheat field as if its head were on a swivel.

Arctic snowy owls, like the young female spotted on the plains north of Rudyard in Hill County last week, are eye-catching with brilliant white coats and 5-foot wing spans. They are turning heads again in some locations in the northwest United States this year, including western and north-central Montana.

“I don’t know what to make of it yet, but there’s definitely snowies showing up again,” said Denver Holt, a researcher at the Owl Research Institute in Charlo.

In what’s known as an “irruption,” snowy owls from the arctic migrate in great numbers every few years to United States, Holt said. That happened last winter with thousands of the bright white owls reported in 30 states from coast to coast. Holt said it may have been the biggest irruption ever recorded.

It’s too early in the winter to say whether another large-scale migration to southern latitudes is under way for a second consecutive year, which would be unusual, said Holt, but “we definitely have seen a fair number of birds in the Northwest.”

The number of confirmed sightings has surprised Holt, who has been researching snowy owls near Barrow, Alaska, for 21 years.

“It’s looking like we might have an unexpected higher number of birds this year, at least the western part of the state,” Holt said of Montana.

At least 10 snowy owls are in the western Montana’s Mission Valley, and maybe more, he said. “That’s a pretty good number,” Holt said. Eight birds were seen in one open field. Holt personally saw two owls in a second field.

“There’s probably more around because there usually are,” said Holt, noting that farmers and ranchers often don’t report them.

Holt also has received reliable reports of sightings east of the Continental Divide in Montana, both in the Choteau area and near Rudyard on the Hi-Line. Birds also have been reported in Washington near Vancouver and Seattle, he said.

“We may see more,” Holt said. “For some reason, maybe they haven’t all gotten here yet or maybe this is what it is.”

A few snowy owls winter in Montana every year.

“But for the Mission Valley, where I live, it’s unusual to have this many two years in a row,” Holt said.

The birds migrate south from the Arctic tundra in Canada, Alaska and Russia. Typically, it’s younger birds that migrate with the owls settling for a while where they find food before returning north, Holt said. It’s impossible to know exactly how many turned up in the states last year because there were so many, “they just don’t get reported,” particularly in vast prairie areas, Holt said.

“Last year was unusual because it seemed like it was widespread geographically,” he said.

It’s not known exactly what prompts the periodic mass migrations south, Holt said.

Food shortages, or good reproduction years, are likely factors in the southern dispersal, but Holt suspects other reasons, as well. People often like to say the irruptions are caused by lemming populations crashing, he said. The small rodent is the owl’s main food in the Arctic. But Holt said a food shortage doesn’t entirely explain why birds ended up as far south as Texas last year “when you can stop in Great Falls, Montana.”

The irruptions into more southern latitudes emphasizes that snowy owls require large areas of open lands beyond the Arctic to accommodate nomadic tendencies, according to Holt’s Owl Research Institute.

The possibility of seeing a showy snowy excites Montana bird watchers.

“It’s always a pleasure,” said Mike Schwitters, a bird watcher from Great Falls. “They’re quite startling to look at.”

Schwitters has been looking for snowy owls at Freezout Lake northwest of Fairfield. He’s hopeful he’ll see one this year because of the reports of the birds in other locations. Last year, three snowy owls spent about a month at Freezout, he said.

There are 15 species of owls in Montana. Of the 15, 14 breed in the state with the snowy owl, which breeds in the Arctic, the only migratory species.(backslash)

In Montana, the birds eat primarily voles but every so often they grab a jack rabbit, pheasant or grouse, Holt said.

Kristi DuBois, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist, said the highest densities of wintering snowy owls in Montana occur in the Mission Valley, in the Kalispell area and the northern Montana prairies. She’s seen them perched on rock piles, small ridges, fence posts and even houses.

“We saw one last year sitting on cellphone tower,” she said.

The snowy owl spotted north of Rudyard was a female, probably about 6 months old, Holt said. Researchers have been able to distinguish between young males and females by different-shaped markings they have on specific feathers. Overall, females are darker and adult males are bright white.

Holt counts owls among a group of animals and birds in the world that people find especially fascinating. That group includes penguins, whales and koala bears. The big round flat face is part of the appeal of owls, Holt said. The amazingly white feathers of a snowy owl only adds to their appeal, Holt said.

“It just makes them more magical, more fascinating,” he said.


Information from: Great Falls Tribune,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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