Another “Snowy Winter?”

By dgross November 30, 2017

Pennsylvania Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel, PGC

Everyone remembers the great Snowy Owl irruption of 2013-2014. It was one of the most fabulous birding events in anyone’s memory —  and a highlight in the state’s birding history.  There are few birds more charismatic and appealing than the “big white owl.” There were so many popping up in many places that winter!  That was the biggest Snowy Owl irruption in memory that may never be duplicated.  But, it does look like the winter of 2017 – 2018 might also be a “Snowy Winter” with lots of opportunities to see these northern visitors. With many birders having fond memories of viewing Snowies or “just misses” that winter, the stage is set for a lot of Snowy Owl viewing this winter.  They already are being reported at a variety of locations in the Northeast as well as the Mid-west and Great Plains. It looks like there was a pretty good breeding season at a few locations to the north, so many Snowy Owls may be headed this way. Several Snowy Owls have already been reported in the state including many counties.

For up-to-date news about Snowy Owls and researchers studying this species, check out the Project SNOWstorm website at: There you will find opportunities to contribute sightings, photos, and donations to the project.

The winter Snowy Owl irruptions result in part from breeding populations in the North. The large breeding population of the Ungava Peninsula probably was a source for the southern movement of Snowy Owls in the winter of 2013 – 2014.  There are reports that there were populations of Snowy Owls there again in 2017.  Nesting owls also were reported by researchers working in northwest Hudson Bay region known as Rankin Inlet and at Igloolik which is north of Hudson Bay on the Foxe Basin, so the prospects of an irrupting this winter look fairly good. There already are many reports of Snowy Owls seen in the Great Plains, the Midwest and the Northeast.  These reports are coming from as far south as Oklahoma and Virginia already. For more details about the new season, please see the report by J. F. Therrien on the Project SNOWstorm website where the latest news about Snowy Owls can be found.

Erie, the owl whose research has been sponsored by the PSO, by Project SNOWstorm

Birders are urged to contribute Snowy Owl sightings directly to Project SNOWstorm complete with photographs and details about the sighting location. Of course, reports to eBird also are appreciated especially those with details about the sighting and location.  Photos of owls with good view of the tail or open wings are especially welcome because they are helpful for determining the age and sex of the owl.  See good examples in the “I Want to Help / Contribute Photos” section.

Snowy Owl with wings spread, by Jake Dingel, PGC

Although they can be seen during the day, for the most part Snowy Owls are nocturnal like most other owls. They usually do not move much in the daytime except when disturbed. So, a lot of the best owl searching can be done just at daybreak and dusk when they are most active in light.  Actually, Snowy Owls sit tight for long periods during the day often in full view.  They often perch at prominent places that imitate the high ground they seek as hunting posts.  We also wonder if they signal their presence and local dominance by selecting a prominent position.  A healthy looking owl may also signal to others that this is a great place to feed on rodents.

Snowy Owl in flight by Wayne Laubscher

Where Pennsylvania birders have found Snowy Owls, they also have observed other interesting birds of the open country. While watching Snowies, it is not unusual to hear the twittering of Horned Larks (often the “Northern” subspecies, alpestris), Snow Buntings, or American Pipits. Other open country raptors like Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, Barn Owls, and Short-eared Owls also offer enjoyment and opportunities for photography. Alert birders might even see a Peregrine Falcon or Merlin zip by in the open country.  All of these birds are great to add to eBird records.

Short-eared Owl with prey by Jake Dingel


Some Tips for Good and Responsible Snowy Owl Watching – A Little “Owl Etiquette”

Remain quiet and stand still as much as possible. Avoid loud conversation, vehicle noises, making unnecessary movements.

Keep a respectable distance to avoid flushing the owls or keeping others from observing them. If the owl reacts to you, you are too close!

Do not approach the owl with intent of flushing it.

Do not attempt to call, lure, or bait the owls. The owls will take such offerings only too readily, but it is not in their best interest to be supported in this way.

Respect private property and nearby residents.

Do not impede roadways, road and driveway access, or block traffic flow.

Avoid damaging lawns and right-of-way lanes with your tires.

Take advantage of opportunities to teach others about the owls and good birding etiquette. Share your optics and your knowledge.

In short, be a good ambassador of the birding community and think first of the welfare of the owls.


Horned Lark in snow by Jake Dingel

The Snowy Owl has been deservedly receiving more attention for conservation. In the 2016 revision of the Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan for Canada and Continental United States, the Appendix A, Species Assessment Information lists Snowy Owl as a Yellow Watch List “with steep declines and major threats.”  The continental population is estimated at less than 30,000 individuals.  Of course, this is a rough estimate for a species that is nomadic and nests in remote locations.  The population size certainly changes on a yearly basis.

Dan Brauning holding Snowy Owl ready for banding by Project SNOWstorm, by Laurie Shaffer

There are strong suspicions that Snowy Owl populations move from one geographical area to others regularly, a prey-focused nomadic life style that defies categorization and understanding.  The ever-changing nesting grounds are likely to be in different provinces, states, countries, and continents each year.  For example, a Snowy Owl population could nest on the Arctic tundra of Alaska or Canada for one season and then move somewhere in Siberia the next — a different country, continent, and hemisphere.  So, population estimates are challenging to make on any geographical scale even a hemispheric level. They change, sometimes dramatically, on a yearly basis.

Snowy Owl by Jake Dingel, PGC

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is particularly proud to be part of the Snowy Owl research community since so many Pennsylvanians are involved in some way with Project SNOWstorm and related projects. The Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, is a base for the Project SNOWstorm team. Scott Weidensaul, a native of southeast Pennsylvania, is one of the co-founders of Project SNOWstorm and is a board member and volunteer curator at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art. He is the author of several bird books, the most recently published was Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Dr. Jean-Francois Therrien, senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, has studied Snowy Owls for many years on their Arctic breeding grounds and recently as part of the Project SNOWstorm team. Dr. Eugene Potapov of Bryn Athyn College is a key Snowy Owl researcher who has co-written a book with Richard Sale called The Snowy Owl published by T & AD Poyser.

Snowy Owl ready for banding by Lauren Fenstemacher, PGC

The technology that tracks Snowy Owls has been designed and manufactured by Cellular Tracking Technologies which originated at Somerset, Pennsylvania, with Mike Lanzone, Trish Miller, and Andrew McGann.  Drew Weber of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Nemesis Bird designed and manages the website. David Brinker of Project Owlnet lives in Maryland, but does research on Northern Goshawks and Northern Saw-whet Owls in our state.  And, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is a proud partner of Project SNOWstorm with Dan Brauning and Doug Gross serving as team members.  Many Pennsylvanians have contributed to the Project SNOWstorm and the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology has sponsored a GPS unit for a Snowy Owl called “Erie” caught in that county.

Millcreek, an owl captured and marked in Pennsylvania, by Project SNOWstorm

We are grateful for the involvement of Pennsylvania birders in Snowy Owl research. Please keep involved both with Project SNOWstorm and with eBird.  The Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Section thanks you!

Good owling and winter birding!

Doug Gross, PA Game Commission and Project SNOWstorm


Rough-legged Hawk, light phase, by Jake Dingel