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Snowy Owls moving south—winter is coming!

Snowy Owl, Duxbury, MA
Snowy Owl, Duxbury, MA

Thanks to Harry Potter, Snowy Owl is one of the most well-known birds in the world, and also almost universally adored. Who can say no to a massive, charismatic, white owl? Over the past few winters, much of North America has been graced by these ghostly owls, especially during the winter of 2013-2014. In that season, thousands of Snowy Owls irrupted further south than normal, particularly in the eastern United States. Snowies were seen as far south as Florida (!), and a single bird even made it to Bermuda (!!). In Newfoundland, people were seeing hundreds of owls in a single birding outing, like this checklist with 138 individuals, and 55 from one viewpoint. Wow! We’re already seeing signs of another Snowy Owl invasion this fall, with early reports of birds far exceeding what was seen by this time in 2013. Will the numbers continue to grow throughout the winter? Only time will tell.

As illustrated by some of the above statistics, the winter of 2013-2014 was a glorious one if you like great birds. It seemed to be so good for Snowies that something along those lines might not happen again in the foreseeable future. But looking at the sightings coming into eBird from the Upper Midwest this past month, it seems like there is a chance that we could see a similar pattern this coming winter.

This figure shows the comparison between reports this year and past years—also compared to the all-time average.

This figure shows the comparison between Snowy Owl reports for the Upper Midwest and Northeast region this year and past years—also compared to the all-time average. Thanks to Team BirdCast for this informative figure!

It is important to state up front that this opportunity for birders often reflects a very stressful time for the owls. Although it can be difficult to discern the precise reason why any owl may be turning up further south than normal, this reason is usually not to the benefit of the owl. Common reasons for these southern “irruptions” can include shortages of food further north in core wintering areas, or an excess of young birds that are driven from the better northern wintering areas to sub-par locations further south. Please take care when you encounter any of these owls, and avoid the temptation to get a frame-filling photograph or better look at the risk of stressing the owl. This is not to say that all photographers or birders are stressing the birds they encounter, but care should be taken with these owls, as well as with all birds.

Now that we’re all on the same page for how to respect an owl when you find one, how do you find one!? It can be simpler than you think—these owls turn up anywhere. Over the past four weeks, more than 50 Snowy Owls have been reported between eastern Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. One was even seen in southern Ontario as early as September 13th! Reports from more than 30 locations across Wisconsin have included some very unexpected places. Some of these, complete with photos, include a car roof in a parking lot; someone’s back deck; on a roadside sign; another car roof—someone’s truck; and even on a bridge railing at 10:45pm! Some of the Snowies even seem to like to take a spin on the water. You just never know.

Snowy Owl sightings in September-October 2015. More than 50 owls have already been seen in the Minnesota-Wisconsin-Michigan region alone.

Snowy Owl sightings in September-October 2015. More than 50 owls have already been seen in the past month in the Minnesota-Wisconsin-Michigan region alone.

During many of these irruption years, Snowy Owls will turn up in places like those shown above—downtown rooftops are a frequent haunt. The main thing you’re looking for is something that reasonably mimics the tundra—an open space that is usually barren or grassy, and has a source of prey. The prey could range from small mammals to sea ducks, the latter being hunted on the open ocean under cover of darkness. Snowy Owls are pretty amazing birds!

Although the above map of sightings this year so far is interesting, how does it differ from 2013 (the mega year), and 2014 (a year that still featured quite a few)? 2013 and 2014 are shown below, and have almost no reports through the end of October. Please report any Snowies that you find to eBird, to help us understand the movements of this mysterious species.

Snowy Owl sightings in September-October 2013. Almost none, a drastic difference from this year.

Snowy Owl sightings in September-October 2013. Almost none, a drastic difference from this year.

Snowy Owl sightings in September-October 2014. Similar to 2013, there are few records—a shadow of 2015.

Snowy Owl sightings in September-October 2014. Similar to 2013, there are few records—a shadow of 2015.

Although we won’t know what this winter holds until it truly arrives—it sure could be exciting! Combining this with exceptional numbers of Northern Saw-whet Owls that have already been reported in the Upper Midwest, it could be a winter filled to the brim with silent, graceful owls.