In his latest Birdwatch column for the Explorer, John Thaxton said we might see an influx of snowy owls this winter. The man is a soothsayer.
Snowy owls live in the Canadian tundra, but once in a while they migrate south in great numbers in search of food. This is one of those “irrupution” years.
National Public Radio reported last week that snowy owls have been sighted in many states this winter, from Maine to Washington State and as far south as Oklahoma.
Jim McCormac, a biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, told NPR that the owl’s movements are influenced by the lemming populations in the far north. Most likely, he said, “there was a superabundance of lemmings this year up in the Arctic. And there were so many lemmings that the owls in response will lay more eggs, so there’s a lot more young owls. And so there’s not enough food to get through the winter, so a lot of them come south.”
Before Thaxton wrote his column in early December, there already had been three sightings in our region. Larry Master, a Lake Placid birder, said snowy owls are usually seen during irruption years along the edges of the Adirondack Park, including the Champlain Valley. They also may frequent the St. Lawrence Seaway. “Snowy owls are birds of the open tundra and don’t feel comfortable in woods,” Master said. “I’ve never seen one in the Tri-Lakes area, although a friend saw one a few years ago on the Whiteface Inn golf course–a one-day wonder.”
Although the irruption is good news for birders, they should be careful not to stress the owls. McCormac noted that when snowies arrive this far south they usually are emaciated and hungry. “Photographers, avid birders, give the birds a lot of distance, don’t disrupt them, cause them to fly, things like that because that’s another peril that they face,” he said.
With their white plumage, snowy owls blend in with the arctic landscape. Given our dearth of snow this winter, they might find it difficult to camouflage themselves in these parts.