By now you’ve likely read about the abundance of Snowy Owls from at least one newspaper, magazine or website. The big news across Canada and the US this winter is the increased number of Snowy Owls moving south, a migration pattern that is very uncommon for this species of bird. It’s what scientists refer to as ‘irruption,’ where owls migrate drastically out of their normal range.
Whereas the Snowy Owl is usually known to stay fairly north, in areas above the Great Lakes regions, for example, this year reports have come up about sightings as far south as Florida. So, what does this mean for birders? This unusual occurrence marks a unique opportunity for those in the Southern regions. Irruptions such as this one are unpredictable and may not happen again for decades, providing the perfect opportunity for birders to get a glimpse of these magnificent creatures.
What to know about the Snowy Owl
What do they look like?
Snowy Owls are very large birds with smooth, rounded heads and dense feathering on their legs. This makes the birds look wide at the base when they are sitting on the ground. You’ll find the distinctive white coloring is the marker of a Snowy Owl; the males have yellow eyes and tend to be paler in color and become whiter as they age.
What is their meal preference?
Snowy Owls mainly eat other mammals, ranging in size from small rodents to large hares. On occasion, the birds have been known to eat other birds including small songbirds and medium-sized geese and lemmings. In general, fully grown adult owls are able to consume between three and five lemmings per day – a big meal for a big bird!
If you’re worried about the birds in your area, one helpful trick is to ensure that they are well protected. By putting up bird houses or ensuring you have foliage nearby, it can help keep smaller birds from falling prey to the visiting Snowy Owls.
How to spot the Snowy Owl?
Winter is your only chance to see the Snowy Owls if you live in the southern part of the country, especially considering these birds spend the summer months far north of the Arctic Circle. Unlike many other Owls, Snowy Owls are not nocturnal. And when it comes to hangout spots, they often prefer treeless places and wide-open spaces with rolling terrain since they tend to sit right on the ground to hunt. Interestingly, many have also taken up residence at airports in the Southern regions.
Resident birders find the best time to see them is at dawn or dusk. For your best chances, keep your eyes on high spots including fence posts, buildings, telephone poles and hydro poles, which birds use to get a good view of their surrounding area. The Snowy Owls will typically begin to migrate northwards again in mid-March, so you still have a small window to see them.
The most important advice we can provide if you’re seeking out the Snowy Owl is to remain calm – though we all know how exciting it can be to find one. Once you’ve spotted a Snowy Owl, try and keep quiet and leave distance between yourself and the bird. Minimize lights and recordings; Snowy Owls might appear unperturbed by human spectators, yet birders are advised not to get too close and back off if the bird begins staring at you, just to be safe.
Happy birding – let us know if you end up spotting a Snowy Owl!