I looked up and there it was among the green branches of the pitch pines—thick bird,
a ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders and down the back—color of copper, iron, bronze—lighting up the dark branches of the pine.
What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.
When I made a little sound it looked at me, then it looked past me.
Then it rose, the wings enormous and opulent and, as I said, wreathed in fire.
(I Looked Up by Mary Oliver)
Look up! You may have a good chance of spotting Harry Potter’s pet owl, Hedwig.
In unprecedented numbers, the irruption of Snowy Owls has birdwatchers far and wide on the look out for these yellow-eyed, pure-white raptors as they migrate from the northern boreal forest. Confirmed sightings of the Bubo scandiacus reach as far south as Florida, Arkansas and even on Bermuda.
“We probably won’t see something like this again in our lifetime,” said Scott Weidensaul, a wildlife researcher and author who is participating in Project SNOWstorm, an effort to track, monitor and collect data on the winter activity of irrupting Snowy Owls. Researchers are capturing and banding the large raptors with cellular tracking devices to understand the nesting, feeding and migration patterns of these diurnal birds of prey who feast on lemmings, rodents and hares.
Snowies reported in mass numbers
Some scientists say this has been the biggest Snowy Owl irruption to occur in 50 years but the advent of online birder reporting tools may also affect the numbers. As of Jan. 2, 2014 the Minnesota Ornithologists Union reports 90 sightings of Snowy Owls in Minnesota. Neighboring Wisconsin reports a total of 55 sightings last month and nationally the influx is hitting record numbers. Ornithologists can’t fully explain the avian phenomenon but most agree that food scarcity, or unusual breeding and nesting patterns may drive Snowy Owls further south.
Nature’s wonder or metro nuisance?
While mass sightings of Snowies are fascinating, the unprecedented migration of these large birds – weighing up to 6-pounds with a wingspan of more than 4-feet – is causing problems at metro airports. The killing of Snowy Owls last year at New York Kennedy airport prompted a federal lawsuit by animal advocacy groups. As a result, airports such as Boston’s Logan International are using safe and humane solutions to shoo the birds away from airstrips, but this is only a quick fix to a long-term problem.
Effects from global warming alter food supply, habitat and the ecosystem of these graceful predators who seek low, flatlands as an alternative to their northern native tundra. Migrating to their southern destination, the Snowies flock to flat, open spaces near industrial complexes and airports, where reports indicate owls have flown into jet engines of planes idling on the tarmac.
How to report a sighting
Are you lucky enough to have spotted one of these majestic creatures? You can report your sighting through the National Audubon Society eBird site and donate to the Project SNOWstorm effort where $13,450 has been raised toward the $20,000 goal. In the meantime, check on updates about the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, which serves more than 20,000 visitors each year. The center hopes to raise $2 million to pay for needed renovations.
~Star Tribune, Jan. 11, 2014: Snowy owls showing up in high numbers