Big winter for Snowy Owls unlikely, expert says

Snowy
A Snowy Owl at South Haven, Michigan, in November 2017. Photo by Kenneth Bishop

Snowy Owls have begun to turn up in southern Canada and the northern lower 48 states, as they do every winter. While it’s still early in the season for finding Snowies, Ryan Brady, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says “a big winter for Snowy Owls is unlikely at this point,” at least in his state. 

Through yesterday, November 25, Brady says 20 of the big white owls have reached Wisconsin, from Bayfield and Door counties in the north to Crawford and Milwaukee counties in the south.

Two years ago, during the most recent Snowy Owl irruption year, the Badger State had 94 owls by this point. Last winter, 30 birds had been reported by November 25.

The early results in Wisconsin seem to indicate that, overall, Snowies will be sparse this winter in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. 

“Elsewhere, Minnesota has had few sightings while Michigan and southern Ontario have fared much better, perhaps indicating a better flight slightly to our east,” he says. “Unlike some years, however, the owls have not made it very far south yet.” The southernmost observations so far, as shown on eBird, are in northwestern Indiana, northeastern Ohio, and on Long Island, New York.

I checked the eBird map for October and November 2017, when that winter’s irruption was getting started, and it shows numerous sightings in the Great Lakes states and provinces, the Northeast, and the Mid-Atlantic states. Owls were recorded as far south as North Carolina. So, while Brady looks primarily at Wisconsin sightings, his projections for the winter appear to be on point for the bulk of the owl’s winter range. 

“Notably, the majority of owls photographed so far have been adults, suggesting low numbers of juveniles were produced on arctic breeding grounds this past summer,” Brady adds. “It’s common for Snowy Owls’ breeding success to vary greatly each year, often booming when lemming populations are high and busting when these tundra rodents are few.”

Recent Snowy reports on eBird

Pins show Snowy Owl sightings reported to eBird from October 1 to November 26, 2019.

If you happen to see a Snowy Owl, the Wisconsin DNR offers the following recommendations for observing the species:

  • Do not approach an owl too closely — you are too close if the bird frequently looks at you, sits erect with open eyes peering in your direction, or flushes from its perch.
  • Avoid repeated flushing.
  • Do not play audio recordings from smartphones or other devices.
  • Do not feed owls mice or other prey, which may lead to unintended negative impacts, like habituation to people, higher likelihood of vehicle collision, and disease.
  • Minimize use of flash photography, especially after dark, as this can disrupt an owl’s activity patterns.
  • When viewing from a vehicle (recommended!), turn off the engine to avoid interfering with the owl’s auditory hunting technique.
  • Ask landowner permission before frequenting private property.
  • Avoid blocking public roadways and access points.

In many cases you may not be the only person to see the owl, and the cumulative impacts of these repeated actions can be especially harmful.

Learn more about respectfully watching owls in this video from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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