If you were dreaming of a Snowy Owl sighting for Christmas, you were in luck.
In 2013, thousands of Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) stormed the northern U.S. taking up posts in surroundings different from the flat Arctic tundra where they typically preside.
In a typical winter, ten snowies visit Pennsylvania, but in 2013 the state was visited by 400. They were part of the largest Snowy Owl irruption or influx of a species into a place they don’t usually live the U.S. has ever seen since the 1920’s.
That was until now.
Wave of Arctic Raptors
According to Project SNOWstorm, a volunteer-fueled Snowy owl-tracking organization founded after that irruption, and as reported on the Audubon Society’s website, Project SNOWstorm is predicting another wave of Arctic raptors will hit North America this winter.
Scott Weidensaul, one of the directors of Project SNOWstorm says the clues point to a significant irruption, but the group also admits there is no way to know how big it could be or if it will happen at all.
“There’s a little bit of voodoo and black magic in all of this,” Weidensaul says. “Though Snowy Owl migration patterns are mostly mysterious, there have been some tell-tale signs that the birds are on their way.”
Project SNOWstorm found that some Snowy Owls already seem to be retracing the last irruption’s process. Although data is not conclusive, it appears that big southward movements occur about once every four years.
Arctic Rodents Key to Snowy Owl’s Irruption
The movement is attributed to lemmings, a Snowy Owl’s preferred prey, go through regional population explosions at about the same interval.
In 2013, those little Arctic rodents had a banner year on the Ungava Peninsula in Northern Quebec, fueling a highly successful breeding season for the owls that flocked to that area.
And this past breeding season Canadian wildlife biologists studying caribou reported an unusually high number of owls flapping around the same area, reports others have confirmed.
Early stateside migrators have also been spotted, and Weidensaul says single birds have been located as far south as Oklahoma, Missouri, and North Carolina—and their numbers are building faster than they did in 2013.
No matter how many Snowy Owls ultimately show up, these birds are tough.
Weidensaul says people often assume that if they see an Arctic bird in, say, Indiana, it must be sick or starving. In reality, these Snowy Owls are reasonably fat and healthy and will eat anything they find. That includes the Snowy found gnawing on a bottle-nosed dolphin carcass in Delaware a few years ago, fending off its find from Turkey Vultures.
Snowy Owls Offer Rare Glimpse of Arctic Life
Sometimes the birds struggle to navigate developed landscapes full of buildings and telephone wires. Airport runways especially lure Snowy Owls in with their flat, treeless expanses, where planes are taking off pose a danger.
If seriously injured, the birds might need assistance, but otherwise, Weidensaul recommends people shouldn’t get too close.
Young owls who have no experience with humans often let birders and photographers approach them. But these interactions can end with the birds backing up into highways and other dangerous situations.
Let’s face it, Snowy Owls are enchanting and when you see a beautiful white owl, birds that represent a rare glimpse of Arctic life often unknown to many of us, it deserves attention.
Or as Weidensaul says, “you’re not going to see a polar bear walking through your neighborhood.”
Be sure to check the Ebird alerts in your area for Snowy Owl sightings and have your binoculars or scope on hand and be ready to bolt out the door if there’s a Snowy in your area.
It’s a breathtaking sight you won’t soon forget.
If you love Snowy Owls as much as we do, consider a donation to Project SNOWstorm to help them reach their goal of raising $30,000 to track Snowy Owls this winter.