News & Features

Snowy Owls For Christmas!

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel
Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel

The winter of 2013 – 14 will be remembered for being one of the most spectacular migrations of Snowy Owls in history.  The “White Owl” as many people call it is a truly fabulous bird of the boreal tundra that we are fortunate to be able to see this winter in record numbers.  It may be a lifetime opportunity for many to experience this iconic bird.  It was only two years ago that Snowy Owls staged a widespread invasion of northern United States including Pennsylvania.  This winter’s invasion may be even better.  The 2011 invasion by the “White Owls” occurred mostly in the Great Plains and Pacific Northwest, while this winter’s event is more concentrated in the Northeastern and Great Lakes regions. Pennsylvania is right in the middle of the action!  By December 10, there were reports of Snowy Owls from at least 21 counties, some for the first time in history.  By January 7, there were reports from as many as 33 counties.  Snowy Owls already have been reported as far south as South Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas.  More are probably on the way with many sighted in the Canadian Maritimes, New England, and New York that may work their way south.  A team of ornithologists are working to document and study this phenomenon: a collaboration of researchers from Project Owlnet and Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art working with the PA Game Commission, eBird, and others.  As part of the coordinated effort, we urge you to submit Snowy Owl sightings to a special e-mail account for monitoring this event: snowyowlphotos13@gmail.com  or to the new SNOWstorm website that can be found at http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/   This is a centralized place for people to contribute their information and photos to the Snowy Owl project.  Of course, entries into eBird also are very welcome!  Photographs, especially of owls with spread wings and tails, are needed because they help determine the sex and age of the birds.   Explicit location information is preferred including latitude / longitude coordinates, street address, road name, and township. 

As noted, Snowy Owls already have been reported in at least 21 counties of the state, with that number climbing.  They have been observed particularly in open habitats like fields, shorelines, roadsides, and airports.  More are being reported in counties with wide open spaces, but it is suspected that others may be overlooked for lack of observers.  With Christmas  Bird Counts and Project Feederwatch attracting many eyes to winter birds, there is tremendous potential for making more Snowy Owl observations and contributing to our understanding of this enigmatic visitor from the North. Most studies on this owl have been conducted elsewhere in its circumpolar range including the Mid-west and Europe. 

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel

Most “White Owls” perch on high points in open fields, shores, ice, or along roadsides.  Snowy Owls can be confused with other birds or objects, so photographs are helpful to confirm sightings.  On the other hand, there have been many embarrassing misidentifications of plastic bags, bottles, people, piles of snow, buckets, floating ice, and other large whitish birds for the iconic Snowy Owl.  At a distance or for the inexperienced, it can be only too easy to mistake a Snowy for a white-bellied Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl, Barn Owl, or gull.  That is why descriptions and photographs are always helpful with a rare bird report. 

Snowy Owls are showing up in all kinds of places. Many Snowy Owls are quite conspicuous on the landscape, but they also can blend in with the snow and grass where they perch.  Some Snowy Owls are flying around farms and near towns with some perching on man-made structures like light poles and buildings.  They “have no shame” and will perch on practically anything that offers them a better view: haystacks, light poles, silos, manure spreaders, town halls, posts and signs.  One has even been seen by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and State Police headquarter office buildings where PA Game Commission staff had the opportunity to see and to take video of the bird.  Please check out the PGC Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=662305377134691&set=vb.265766570121909&type=3&theater

 Most of the Snowy Owls that migrate this far south are young birds that are in fairly good condition, but some individuals can get into trouble from interactions with humans, vehicles, power lines, and other obstructions.  This invasion is probably being staged due to high numbers of Snowy Owl fledglings produced in nests in northern Canada and Greenland where they react well to the abundance of rodents.  However, Snowy Owl migration is poorly studied so we can learn a lot from this event if everyone helps out in a consistent way.  Snowy Owls are fairly nomadic and respond remarkably well to prey abundance and availability — producing large clutches in the summer and fledging up to a dozen young out of nests in the tundra region.  Then, these young birds disperse south looking for food as the winter weather hits and decreases their ability to find food.  These invasions generally occur when there are plentiful rodent populations in the North that generate large broods of Snowy Owls. So, the invasion is a good sign for the Snowy Owls. 

For an overall view of the early stages of the Snowy Owl flight, please see the “general eBird” story of December 11 which addressed the early findings from eBird on a continent-wide basis.  Check out this story which includes range maps and comparison with the last big flight: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/gotsnowies2013/

There also are stories about the big Snowy Owl flight and individual sightings at the Nemesis Bird website and the PGC’s Facebook page.  

The Snowy Owl is such a distinctive bird that many sightings are made by people with little prior bird identification experience.  And, they can be very easy to photograph so there are many opportunities for people to share their experiences with Snowies.  Many observations are coming from the obvious places with beaches and other open areas – Presque Isle in Erie County, some strip mines, and the farm country of the southeast.  But, are they at other locations with fewer birders and less coverage, but just overlooked and unreported?  Or are these gaps in observations a real reflection of the owl distribution?  With more documented reports, we will have a better picture of this ongoing event. 

Snowy Owl near Bellefonte by Wayne Laubscher

Snowy Owl near Bellefonte by Wayne Laubscher

There is no owl quite like the Snowy Owl.  They are not only nearly all-white, but they are the largest North American owl species – even larger than the Great Horned Owl.  Like other raptors, the females are larger than the males.  They mostly prey on small rodents but are remarkably opportunistic and hunters that have been observed taking fish from shallow waters, for example.  Many small mammals and birds fall prey to these large owls.  They swallow lemmings and meadow voles in one gulp.  Many also chase waterfowl on open water.  Since this “White Owl” spends the summer in the boreal tundra where daylight lasts nearly all day, they are quite accustomed to hunting in daylight or crepuscular hours.  They seem to be most active at dusk and dawn, but apparently they also hunt at night.  Their nocturnal activities are not well-documented or understood. 

Unlike most of our owls, Snowy Owls are birds of open country.  They often perch in the open and on a conspicuous perch.  They often sit in open fields, usually at an elevated position.  They often perch on a rise on a hill or a dune on a beach.  Many congregate at airports or other large fields where they can be remarkably difficult to see.  These locatiosn also lend themselves to photographic opportunities.  Feel free to take many photographs but please resist the urge to get so close to the owls that disturb or flush them off a roost.  Most are healthy but they need time to hunt for food and to rest after long flights or searches.  Snowy Owls do not see many people so they can appear tame or naïve.  However, do not take this as an invitation to get very close because you can cause them to waste precious time and energy escaping your advances rather than hunting and resting during the cold weather when they need a lot of energy.  Please also see eBird’s article on reporting sensitive species.

Not everyone is pleased about all these Snowy Owls along the East Coast. Check out this amazing video (embedded in eBird checklist) by ace eBirder and Pennsylvanian Tom Johnson, who captured two Peregrines expressing their displeasure at having a Snowy Owl on their turf at Stone Harbor Point, Cape May Co., New Jersey.

The eBird signal for the 2011 invasion was helped along by a couple individuals who helped compile records from people who saw Snowy Owls but did not use eBird. Our participation in the Snowy Owl project including the e-mail address to send records is part of our concerted reaction to the need to include a wide variety of people in contributing information.  More is coming in this effort including a research project called “Project SNOWstorm” that will use the data being gathered in cooperation with others now. 

 What can you do to help?

To review, people can submit their observations to the ornithologists studying Snowy Owls and include photos and additional information about their sighting.  The preferred place to submit their Snowy Owl sightings is a special e-mail account for monitoring this event: snowyowlphotos13@gmail.com   Please send your observations there.

For those who are involved with eBird, the Pennsylvania eBird portal is the best place to send your observations: http://ebird.org/content/pa/

 For those on Facebook, there also is a way for you to contribute to the project through that site (but the previously mentioned methods are preferred): https://www.facebook.com/groups/snowyowls1314/

 What information should you include in your report?

Date and Time of Observation:  This is prompted in eBird but any other report also should include this basic information.  Number of observers and information about optics and viewing conditions are also helpful in any rare bird report.

 Location:  Ideally, the latitude and longitude of the sighting gives the most precise information.  If that is not known, the street address and road name are very useful in addition to the township and county of the observation.  Tools like GoogleMaps are handy to find specific information about locations.  The Comments section on the Date and Effort page of eBird record entry is a great place to describe the location and habitat in more detail.  Additional details about the land ownership and habitat also are appreciated.  eBird is a geographically referenced database that has the options of adding notes about a sighting and also photographs.  So any report to eBird can be very geographically specific.  In eBird, an observer can select “Use Latitude/Longitude” for selecting their location if their observation is not in a regular “hotspot.”  Specific “hotspot” locations are preferred over larger, more general hotspot locations.  Latitude / longitude information also can be provided in the  Location Notes or Add Details section for each species. 

 Photographs:   Clear images of Snowy Owls are very useful especially those that show spread wings and tails.  From these images, specialists can determined the age and sex class of the birds based on spot/bar patterns.  You can attach a file image to a field record in eBird and post a photograph on the PA eBird Bird Rarities Pool in Flickr.  When possible, take photos and embed them in your checklist (instructions here) to document the owls you see. With visual evidence, you later may be able to get help  determining the age and sex of your owl.   Check out the photos by Scott Keys in the PA eBird pictures for a good example. 

Snowy Owl with wings out by Wayne Laubscher

Snowy Owl with wings out by Wayne Laubscher

 Notes  and Details:  Any additional notes about the Snowy Owl numbers, behavior, habitat, and foraging  also are appreciated.  In eBird, there is an option for each species to “Add Details” that can include a variety of these notes.  The owls will probably be roosting, flying, or pursuing prey.  Please include which behavior is observed.  Snowy Owls are generally “sit and wait” predators but also can pursue a variety of prey that is available.  Any observations of predation would be helpful to learn more about their migration ecology.  Information about the habitat also can be helpful.  Is the location an airport, an open field, a roadside, a reclaimed strip, mine, or another kind of habitat? 

 The eBird Team has created a special *Snowy Owl Alert* in eBird, which shows recent Snowy Owl reports in the Lower 48 U.S. states, including dozens of superb photos. If you haven’t yet connected with a Snowy Owl near you, you can live vicariously through the amazing experiences of others. If you are seeing Snowy Owls, make sure to share the experience with non-birding friends and people you encounter while viewing. Seeing these magical ghostly emissaries from the Arctic is engaging for almost everyone and a great way to get the public excited about birds and the natural world.

We welcome your participation in documenting this amazing natural phenomenon.  Enjoy the Christmas Snowy Owls!

 Doug Gross, Ornithologist, PA Game Commission, dogross@pa.gov

And the Snowy Owl research team that includes Project Owlnet, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Cornell Laboratory’s eBird, and the new “Project SNOWstorm” that is developing as a cooperative, multi-state project with several partners including the PA Game Commission. 

Thanks to Jake Dingel and Wayne Laubscher for the Snowy Owl photographs used in this article.  And thanks to those who have contributed their photos to the PA eBird Bird Rarities Pool in Flickr and PGC Facebook.

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel