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Snowy Owl in Snow

Last winter, white visitors from the north started showing up in the lower 48 in numbers never previously recorded. Young Snowy Owls born that summer in the Arctic wandered as far south as Florida, and as far east as the island of Bermuda. Bird lovers and birds alike had quite an eventful winter. By June all the Snowy Owls had departed for colder destinations, many carrying solar-powered data-recording backpacks to let scientists peer into their lives as they made their way back north. And maybe south again.

That's right: this November, right before Thanksgiving, birders started reporting sightings of Snowy Owls as far south as New Jersey. The snowies seem to be back.

Last year's influx of Snowy Owls tuned lots of people in to the world of birds like few things do. We learned that a significant movement of birds outside their normal range is called an “irruption.” We learned why the snowies came south: they had a very successful breeding season. Their food was incredibly abundant, so many babies survived. But the young owls had to strike south to find their own wintering territories. We learned about wildlife rehabilitation, when an owl hit by a bus in Washington, D.C. became a patient, was released with borrowed feathers, and later died. Folks also learned how well birds love airports, where there's a lot of room for big birds, but not quite enough for owls to coexist with airplanes without potentially bringing the planes down.

As rare as last year's irruption event was, it's even rarer to see such high numbers of Snowy Owls two years in a row. This winter is only getting started. Perhaps as the temperatures drop, so will more owls?

The thing about Snowy Owl appearances is that these are very hardworking, hungry birds who prefer to be left alone. Unfortunately, they're so popular that sometimes (often) visitors disturb them to the point where they can't hunt or rest. Stressed owls starve. It's also illegal to harass them. However, responsible birdwatchers can still get good, maybe once-in-a-lifetime views, if they respect the birds.

Snowy Owls tend to hunt in open, grassy areas like wetlands, prairies, and yes, airports. They hunt by day and night, but dawn and dusk are the most reliable times to see one. If you do happen to spot a Snowy Owl, keep your distance, and don't linger too long. Binoculars help you stay outside the bird's comfort zone, but if the owl pays close attention to you, shifts around, or flies to other perches, you're too close. Approaching an owl to scare it into flight is just plain mean. Better to treasure brief encounters than harm the bird's chances of survival.

Last year, Project SNOWSTORM raised money to buy and deploy tracking devices on owls all over the country. The team is fundraising again to add more devices and more owls to the study this year. The information gleaned from the owls' travels adds to our knowledge of their lives and needs, hopefully informing future conservation decisions that aid Snowy Owls. You can contribute here.

The awareness that the owls bring with them is just as important as the revelations that research will uncover. It's not often that we come face to face with ambassadors from the distant Arctic. It's hard to empathize and act on events that are happening so far away. Snowy Owls bring the Arctic with them to our own backyards, where we can't help but pay attention.


About Erin Gettler
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.