Few birds spark as much awe and excitement among even the most casual nature enthusiast as the Snowy Owl. Each winter brings a varying number of these arctic visitors to Wisconsin and the lower 48, leaving eager birders to wonder annually what each year will have in store. Well, to many birders’ delight, Snowies are again on the move this season, particularly in the eastern U.S. But what about Wisconsin? Let’s take a look at where things stand in the Badger State.
Snowy Owls are currently staging a massive and possibly historic irruption from the Great Lakes east to the Atlantic coast, with hundreds of individuals being seen at many locations as far south as North Carolina (Figure 1). The flight’s incredible extent is probably best exemplified by at least one owl reaching balmy Bermuda 600+ miles out in the Atlantic Ocean and observers in Newfoundland tallying over 200 owls along a single 25-mile stretch of road. For a summary of the national picture, factors driving such irruptions, and other resources on this year’s flight, check out the main eBird page, this story from Audubon magazine, and this blog from 10,000 birds.
Unlike the huge coast-to-coast irruption that garnered national attention in 2011-12, this year’s irruption has a very strong eastern bias, which last occurred during the winter of 2008-09 and is well demonstrated by this graphic for the month of November. Wisconsin has largely been on the western edge of the flight and got off to relatively slow start with only five individuals prior to Thanksgiving. However, by early December reports picked up rapidly, including on the first of the month five birds found in Ashland and an amazing 11 birds at lower Green Bay, as well as inland birds at Goose Pond, Horicon Marsh, Marathon County, and other locales.
As of December 8, approximately 55 Snowy Owls have been reported in Wisconsin via eBird, listserves, facebook groups, WI-DNR staff, and other sources (and surely many more are present and either haven’t been reported or seen). This compares to ~115 owls by the same date during the large irruption of 2011-12, although that year’s flight hit its stride about a week or so earlier. The following year, 2012-13, featured a smaller “echo” irruption in which roughly 30-35 Snowy Owls were reported by this time, whereas the previous winter of 2010-11 had an eye-popping zero owls as of this date.
[Update: As of Feb 9, the Wisconsin total has increased to a remarkable 271 Snowy Owls. Comparisons with 2011 have become difficult because that irruption wasn't tracked quite as closely on a state level but this year very likely surpasses that one based on general impressions. Though the 2013-14 flight is probably not without historic precedent here in Wisconsin, this year' s total may be the highest ever recorded due to increases in number of birders, communication of sightings (e.g. social media), eBird usage, and tracking effort.]
Even within Wisconsin, the eastern slant of this irruption is evident as relatively large numbers of owls are funneling down the Lake Michigan shoreline (Figure 2). Proportionately fewer individuals have been reported from the western half of the state yet some have occurred there (not to mention we have fewer eBirders over in that neck of the woods…). Across the border in Minnesota numbers have been almost pedestrian and only slightly above an average winter, which further exemplifies the geographic scope of the flight so far.
[Update: As of Feb 9, the flight has expanded westward and now covers the entire state and much of Minnesota. Reports along Lakes Michigan and Superior have decreased significantly as birds are now on winter territories and many harbor areas are iced over and devoid of waterfowl prey. Hotspots are the Freedom area of eastern Outagamie County, Kewaunee County, east of Janesville in Rock County, southern Columbia County, Buena Vista Marsh in Portage County, Ozaukee County, and the ag country along the Hwy 29 corridor from Menomonie east through Chippewa Falls to Wausau.]
So what’s next? Time will certainly tell if Wisconsinites will ultimately experience the full brunt of this irruption but clearly a good to very good Snowy Owl season is upon us across most of the state. December is often the month of peak Snowy Owl movements here as some birds pass through, some fall victim to starvation, vehicle collisions, and other hazards, and many set up territories for the winter. The upcoming Christmas Bird Counts should provide another snapshot of where the flight stands and how it ranks compared to other irruption years.
In the meantime, birders can maximize their chances of finding a Snowy Owl by checking suitable habitats such as coastal beaches, harbors, and breakwalls (e.g. Oconto, Manitowoc, Sheboygan, and Milwaukee), open grasslands and agricultural fields (e.g. Buena Vista), large wetland complexes (e.g. Horicon Marsh), airports (be careful – scoping terminals and runways never looks good to security personnel), and vast expanses of ice, which provide excellent tundra-like roosting habitat. Snowy Owls are also well-known for turning up in the oddest of places (Figure 3) so always be on the lookout! Under windy conditions, pay close attention to the downwind side of obstructions such as buildings, haybales, hedgerows, rocks, etc. as owls often seek roosting shelter here. And while some Snowies are active throughout daylight hours, most tend to sit motionless by day and then become active toward dusk and dawn. This presents your best opportunity for spotting an actively-hunting bird.
Last but not least, owls tend to bring out the ugly in birding ethics. Enjoy the bird in all its glory but be sure to give it space, avoid repeated flushing, respect private property and fellow observers, and follow other recommendations of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and American Birding Association. If you find a bird that appears sick or injured, contact your local wildlife rehabilitator or WDNR biologist for guidance on how to proceed. And please help us track this natural phenomenon by reporting your Snowy Owl observations to eBird – it’s fast and easy!
[Update Feb 9: Expect birds to head north between early March and early April, depending in part on early spring weather conditions. Also be sure to check Project SNOWstorm for maps of 3 Snowy Owls being monitored with tracking devices in Buena Vista, Freedom, and Kewaunee.]
Comments, sightings, questions, and corrections are welcome to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos and text by Ryan Brady
WI eBird Team and WDNR/WBCI Bird Monitoring Coordinator
9 December 2013