It’s that time of year again, bird fans! We’re into the coldest average temperatures of the year, Chequamegon Bay is frozen and the days are just barely starting to lengthen. So it must be time to start keeping our eyes peeled for that most arctic of winter visitors, the snowy owl.
Snowy owls spend their summer breeding season in the windswept tundra, nesting on the ground in the open and hunting small animals. Lemmings, for the most part, although they’ll occasionally take on ptarmigan or waterfowl. But it’s during the winter months that we are most likely to encounter them and Wisconsin, with its mix of agriculture, shoreline and suburban sprawl, suits them well.
Snowy owls spend the winter over most of Canada and Alaska and the far northern tier of the United States. Some of them stay on their breeding grounds all year, but they’re prone to winter irruption, an irregular migration of a large number of birds to areas where they normally aren’t found. Depending on a number of factors including food availability, they’ll move south throughout the lower 48 states, even as far south as Texas and Florida in extreme years. According to the Cornell eBird site, just recently there have been confirmed sightings of snowy owls near St. Louis.
They’re an unusual owl in that they’re diurnal, meaning they’re active during the daylight hours. (This makes sense considering that during their breeding season, there aren’t really any hours other than daylight hours.) They prefer open areas and plenty of structures to perch on. Look for them on top of posts, light poles, grain elevators, hay bales and pole sheds. They also sit right on the ground and on shorelines. These guys like to sit for hours looking for prey, so they aren’t exactly elusive. If you do see them at night, they’ll most likely be under a light pole.
Snowy owls are pretty unmistakable if you see them during the middle of the day, although at a distance they may be mistaken for a chunk of ice or hump in the snow. They’re large white owls with piercing yellow eyes, made famous by the birds who played Harry Potter’s owl Hedwig in the movies. The males are whiter than the females and grow whiter as they age. Females usually retain some darker barred feathers except on their faces, which are always white. They’re very territorial even on their wintering grounds and will fight other owls to defend winter territory.
Snowy owls have a low, barking hoot as well as a defensive whistling sound, and they clack their bills when agitated. We won’t see them breeding around here, but they have up to 10 chicks in a single nest, especially in years in which the lemming population is booming.
Contrary to popular belief, most snowy owls that irrupt south during the winter are not starving, according to researchers at the University of Saskatchewan. When this happens, there are more owls seeking more territory due to a bumper crop of rodents the summer before. There might be a few owls who are weak or malnourished, as with any wild bird population. Females tend to fare better than males because they’re larger and more aggressive, and some owls found and banded in irruption years are doing so well they’re morbidly obese!
Alert birders in the area have been reporting several sightings of these gorgeous owls over the past week. Because they’re very territorial, people may be spotting the same bird that has found a favorite spot.
The most frequently recorded snowy owl hangout right now seems to be the Richard Bong Airport and surrounding neighborhood in Superior. But there have been at least two sightings right here in our own Prentice Park in the past week. And we had one plump female or possibly a juvenile male perched right on top of an old satellite dish pole at the Ashland Daily Press building, ready for her close-up and fully expecting to be this week’s featured bird. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you spot any snowy owls in your area. I’d especially be interested in hearing from Eau Claire readers on this topic, since I haven’t heard much about snowy owls in your part of the state this winter.
Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at email@example.com.