We’re Having a White Christmas, But It’s Not What You Think

Oh, we’re in for a treat this winter, nature lovers: Snowy Owls are coming again! The first and only time I’ve ever seen one of these beautiful visitors from the Arctic was back in February of 2012. (See my pictures here.) In some years, for various reasons, these owls come further south than their usual wintering range in Canada and the northern US. And when it happens in large numbers, it’s called an irruption. Reasons for irruptions are usually either a shortage of lemmings (their primary food source), and/or a high breeding success rate leading to excess populations. The result is that many owls are driven further south in search of food.

(Photo by Kenn Kaufman, used with permission)

As you see in the text on this photo, many of the birds that arrive here are young and inexperienced hunters, often hungry and disoriented. They have to adapt to new hunting grounds and new types of prey animals…and quickly.

This year’s irruption is just beginning to build, but it looks like it could be a big one, with Snowy Owls already being spotted as far south as North Carolina. And the birding community is in a frenzy with anticipation. I’m thankful that a few people have stepped up to remind us all to be respectful of the owls, and not to get too close in our attempts to get the “perfect” photo. Unfortunately, people sometimes get overeager and flush the birds from their resting spots, causing them even more distress. When I saw my Snowy Owl along the Lake Huron shore, I was part of a crowd of about two dozen onlookers. We were standing outside a gate watching the bird as it roosted on the roof of a building about 50 yards back from the road. It didn’t seem to be paying any attention to us, which is good. That meant we weren’t bothering it.

My Snowy Owl from February 2012 -- Half-opened eyes, just checking out the crowd

My Snowy Owl from February 2012 — Half-opened eyes, just checking out the crowd

But at one point someone pulled their car in through the gate and got out to take an “even closer” photo, and I almost lost it. Several of us called to the guy and told him he was too close, but he got his photo anyway. One thing I’ve learned about these exciting bird sightings is that just because someone is in a crowd watching the bird doesn’t necessarily mean that person is a birder or is familiar with birding ethics. So we need to gently educate those who might get too close. The “gently” part is hard for me because I feel very protective of any bird surrounded by a crowd of people, and I tend to get angry when people don’t respect the bird’s need for space.

I’ve been given permission to share this message by level-headed fellow birder John Lowry, who sent it to our local birding list today:

Birders,

I suspect there are very few birders who haven’t started hearing about Snowy Owl sightings recently.  Social media has a way of disseminating information quickly, even though this irruption is only a week or so old, by my reckoning.  However, I think this is an irruption of historic proportion.  Do an eBird search for Snowy Owl records in the past month.  Look at the map of the Eastern US.  Holy lemmings!

So my purpose in posting here is twofold.  First, make sure you enjoy this!  And don’t take for granted that you’ll see this again in your lifetime.  Greg Miller, who inspired the books and subsequent film, “The Big Year”, actually missed Snowy during his historic year.   They are awesome to see, and photograph and study.  These birds are visitors from a land that no human within earshot will ever see.  It’s as if they have come here from Mars to grace us with their presence. (Kim says: I love that sentence!)

Secondly, be cool.  Be cool to the birds. Don’t flush them. Don’t get so close they keep turning their head to watch you.  Let them go about their business. The sad reality is that these birds are visiting us out of desperation. They would starve if they stayed up north in the arctic, so they risk a flight thousands of miles to find quality grassland and lakeshore habitats (which, in case you haven’t noticed, are quite gone).  Just enjoy from a distance and don’t let folks purposefully or accidentally reduce these birds’ already low chance of survival.  But… And this is a big but…

Be cool to people, too.  Not everyone understands proper birding etiquette, and ABA President Jeff Gordon makes a great point in noting that many folks’ first or perhaps most memorable impression of birders might be formed while watching a couple of jerks yell at each other about a distant white blob.  And yes, I will TRY to take my own advice. No promises.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, John: Enjoy it, but be cool.

In preparation for hunting my own Snowy Owl this year, I’ve checked recent sightings on eBird. Just look at how widespread this irruption is already:

Snowy Owls irruption map from eBird

And here’s a closer view of places I’m likely to go looking:
Snowy owl irruption map closer view

I’m headed out tomorrow in search of a Northern Shrike that’s been hunting in a local park, but after that I’m all about the Snowy Owls.

(Dear Santa, All I want for Christmas is a few minutes looking at a Snowy Owl. Thanks!) 

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5 Responses to We’re Having a White Christmas, But It’s Not What You Think

  1. Love love owls… I just came home the other night and there was a little screech owl sitting in my yard.

  2. I hope you get your Christmas wish and spot your Snowy Owl, Kim! I saw one once many years ago when we were living up north. I was just on Vancouver Island this weekend and thought of you when I was at Goldstream observing the end of the salmon run. The birds, including about five eagles, were feasting on the fish carcasses.

    • Kim says:

      Thanks, Kristie. I’m starting to get a bad feeling about the Snowies this year though. I’ve just read two separate reports of people finding them starving along roadsides and taking them to rehabbers to try to save their lives. It’s just so sad. I know it happens in nature all the time, but it’s still very hard to hear about it happening to these dignified and beautiful birds who have traveled so far trying to survive. So sad.

  3. Littlesundog says:

    Oh my gosh Kim! I would love to see one of these gorgeous birds! I will wait patiently to see photos and hear all about your sightings. I just know you will have the good fortune to see some. I’ll be sending positive energy and vibes… because I want to know all about it!!

    • Kim says:

      Thanks for the enthusiasm, Lori. I spent a couple hours driving around farm country today and had no luck. But I know I’ll be able to find one eventually!

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