For the Birds column: Another big Snowy Owl irruption year?

Here’s my For the Birds column from last week. Another big Snowy Owl irruption year? We’ll see …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Snowy Owl flies across the beach at The Coastal Center at Milford Point in early March 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Snowy Owl flies across the beach at The Coastal Center at Milford Point in early March 2014.

The historic Snowy Owl irruption of the 2013-14 winter is still fresh in many people’s minds. I know it’s still on the top of my mind. Could we be in store for another one this winter?

We’ll have to wait and see, of course, but if what is happening in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan already is any indication, the chances are pretty good. We’ve barely turned the calendar over to November and sightings in those states are booming. Typically it is mid to late November when the Snowy Owls start showing up.

The Snowy Owl that delighted hundreds of visitors at Calf Pasture Beach in 2008, however, showed up in early November. This year the sightings in the Midwest came even earlier, starting as early as Oct. 20, according to the folks at eBird. eBird is an online database of bird sightings with much of the data submitted by citizen scientists.

An eBird map showing Snowy Owl observations this year shows heavy concentrations of sightings along Lake Michigan, especially up and down its coast in Wisconsin. That same map shows very few sightings in New England so far. The early concentration is definitely in the Midwest. So will those birds — or others that haven’t arrived yet — show up in great numbers in New England again? Again, we’ll have to wait and see.

Snowy Owls are large, white owls that breed in the Arctic and “irrupt” into the U.S. during winter. Some winters there are very few sightings and some winters there are a lot of sightings. The winter two years ago was an anomaly.

The owls were widespread across the northern tier of the U.S. and even dipped down farther south than usual. I saw Snowy Owls that winter in Westport, Milford and Stratford. The irruption — when birds or wildlife appear in an area in unusually large numbers — caused a great stir among the birdwatching community and beyond. News of the owls transcended the pages of birding magazines and blogs.

Major television and radio networks covered the story on newscasts. News of the owls’ irruption was hard to avoid — not that we would have wanted to avoid it, of course. Some experts speculated at the time that these big Snowy Owl movements could become more commonplace. Maybe we are on the cusp of another such historic year. Then again, maybe not. No one knows for sure yet.

The early sightings in the Midwest certainly put us on alert here in New England. Keep your eyes open because Snowy Owls can show up anywhere. I’ve seen photos of Snowy Owls on deck railings, backyard pine trees, parked cars and statues at parks. Most sightings, however, are along coastlines. In fact, every Snowy Owl I’ve seen over the years was spotted on or near a beach. The flat, open habitat of a beach somewhat mimics their expansive nesting grounds in the Arctic.

Seeing a Snowy Owl close up, of course, is a thrill and the preferred sighting. Most sightings, however, are from a long distance and a spotting scope is required for a good look. In many cases a spotting scope or good pair of binoculars is needed to determine whether the white lump in the distance is a Snowy Owl or snow-covered rock. Should you get a closer look, be careful not to stress the bird. Many of the owls that came down two winters ago were reportedly emaciated and on the verge of starvation. Forcing the owl from a perch only causes it to use more of its already depleted energy reserves.

Why do these irruptions occur? It’s most likely a shortage of food in the Arctic, caused either by scarce availability of food or strong availability of food that led to several chicks fledging. Those new owls then stress the food availability and push many of the young owls south.

Whatever the exact reason, let’s hope it’s another good year for Snowy Owl sightings. I’ll certainly keep you posted if I find any.

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