Snowy owls are charismatic, majestic and mysterious. They are the heaviest of all North American owls with some weighing almost six pounds. Their yellow eyes, massive talons, feathered feet, eye-catching white plumage and diurnal hunting behavior appeals to almost everyone, even people who normally would rather shop in a crowded mall than walk in the silence of a woodland. Naturalists and birders are smitten by their unpredictable movement patterns, and the spirit of the remote arctic wilderness these amazing raptors represent. However, unless you plan on visiting the high Arctic tundra of North America or Eurasia, the chances of seeing snowy owls in the wild is usually nearly zero. Maybe not this winter, for they are popping up all over the Midwest almost as quickly as crocuses emerge in spring.
In North America, snowy owls nest as far west as the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Snowy owls breed in rugged arctic landscapes including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where snowy owls will aggressively dive-bomb and drive off wolves that dare approach the owlets in their ground nests. They are found from the western reaches of the arctic regions of Canada to Newfoundland and Labrador, the most eastern province of Canada. I encountered two snowy owls on the morning after Thanksgiving in Tuscola County. The encounter was not accidental. For the two weeks prior to that encounter I had been in daily contact with birder friends and organizations that monitor the migratory movement of these internationally protected enigmatic raptors that know no borders.
The call I was waiting for finally came late Thanking evening from my Lapeer County birder friend, fellow outdoor writer Jeff Nedwick, “We have confirmed sightings in Tuscola County.”
That’s all I had to hear and I was out the door the next morning at dawn. The first two hours of our coffee-fueled hunt was fruitless as we slowly cruised backroads of the Tuscola County farm country paying close attention to power poles and freshly tilled farm fields.
Snowy Owls are active by day, and will usually perch high up the top of a pole or be seen flying low to the ground looking for local rodents to substitute for their arctic diet of lemmings. We talked about the possibilities and probabilities of seeing snowy owls as we crept along the roads at very low speeds, with the consolation prizes of sighting northern harriers and red-tailed hawks hunting in fields, and a ring-necked pheasant strutting his stuff on the side of a road.
The night before our owl hunt I studied literature from Project SNOWstorm, a volunteer-fueled snowy owl-tracking organization founded after a major “irruption” of Snowy Owls four years ago. Their website emphasized a new snowy owl “irruption” appears to be underway. We remained hopeful and I was pleased I understood the word ‘irruption,” a very different meaning then the word “eruption” –something a volcano does.
Snowy owls have appeared all over Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources does a super job of explaining the predicted irruption of Snowy Owls. “Most experts agree these periodic mass movements are associated in some way with their primary northern prey source, a small rodent known as a lemming. Traditional thought suggested that a temporary “crash,” or shortage, of lemmings pushes owls southward in search of food. However, more recent evidence suggests nearly the opposite, that a temporary abundance of lemmings allows the owls to successfully raise large families, and then these young owls disperse southward by the hundreds to avoid competition with older birds for winter territories. It’s even possible, perhaps likely, that not all irruptions are created equal and both mechanisms play out in some years. Unfortunately, the population dynamics of lemmings are complex and poorly understood. The same can be said for snowy owls, in large part because of the remote northern haunts they occupy most of the year. This no doubt elevates their intrigue but serves as a barrier to understanding and ultimately conserving the species.”
Our car conversation came to a screeching halt adjacent to the parking lot of the Fish Point State Wildlife Area check station. Something big and white was on top of a large pile of gravel about 100 feet from the road’s edge. And there it was; a snowy owl perched stoically on that gravel pile just a few dozen feet from parked vehicles.
For the next 20 minutes we stayed in my car and took photos through the open window as the owl would slowly rotate his head from the marsh to the human observers and back again. We left that owl to perhaps dream about mallard ducks and drove about a quarter of a mile before another snowy owl suddenly erupted from the ditch area alongside the road, flew directly in front of the car, and then gained elevation and perched on top of a power pole. We speculated it may have just dined on a young muskrat or perhaps a meadow vole. As we settled in to watch the owl it turned to face into the wind making it easy for us to see the heavily feathered body from the top of the head down to its enormous feet.
I’ve been asked in the past few weeks the best places to look for them locally. There is no correct answer except for saying you will not find them in woodlands. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states, “Whether the tundra or the Great Plains, an airport field or beach dunes, snowy owls like treeless places and wide-open spaces” However, these nomads of the north, a symbol of the high arctic, may appear anywhere as they migrate southward, even in populated and industrial places.
During the final week of November one snowy owl appeared in highly urbanized Madison Heights in southernmost Oakland County and a pair of them “hung out” at the DNR boat launch in Harrison Township. Snowies continued to be seen regularly at Fish Point and in Muskegon and in scattered locations across the state. By the time you read this, perhaps one will be in your neck of the woods.
Seeing a snowy owl in the wild is an exhilarating experience, whether by chance or after an intensive hunt, most often done by walking or driving slowly, stopping often and looking. I quickly discovered, “illusions of reality” often take hold when scanning the horizon with hopes of seeing a perched snowy owl, or one standing in a tilled field, perhaps on a fresh kill.
White trash bags, buckets on farm posts and almost anything else that stands out and appears white may make the human eye think it just saw a snowy owl. Almost all sighting of snowy owls occur in the daylight hours and they are seen most often perched in plain view. They will perch on anything including billboards, large signs, barns, rooftops, hay bales, telephone poles, buoys, lakeshore breakwalls and even the tops of muskrat and beaver lodges; especially if the adjacent water is frozen.
For detailed natural history information on snowy owls visit the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Snowy_Owl/id and for updates on the Snowy Owl irruption visit Project SNOWstorm. http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and an avid explorer of all things wild. Email firstname.lastname@example.org