Snowy Owls For The Solstice

Snowy Owls have swept in from a part of the world with no sun to celebrate the shortest day of the year with us. These birds normally live on the Arctic tundra, which is tilted so far away from the sun right now that it gets little, if any daylight.

The winter solstice on Dec. 21 celebrates the northern part of the planet starting to tilt back toward the sun. In March, for the spring equinox, the earth will be tilted so the equator is facing the sun. That will be the official start of spring.

The winter solstice is the start of winter, but the days start getting longer. Snowy Owls are birds that dwell in the frozen north, so it seems only fitting that they should be in the area as we enter the beginning of winter.

Snowy Owls make this odd journey south roughly every four years, though they don’t always make their way to our region. This year, owls seem to be popping up all over. There are nine reported at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, two at the Jamestown airport and one that has been hanging around Stillwater Corners south of Jamestown.

This has caused me to drive dangerously. I slow down near habitats that resemble the Arctic tundra: wide, flat open fields. The tops of fence posts and electric poles have become the object of obsessive staring and speculation.

Many things look a lot like a Snowy Owl. Partially covered hornets nests do a fair impersonation of one. So do gulls and, from a distance, a variety of hawks with white bellies puffed up in the cold, as well as clumps of snow piled on top of fence posts.

It was not until I was running late to get to the Saturday morning breakfast club that a Snowy Owl finally crossed my path. It was sitting on an electrical pole in the center of a large field south of Jamestown. There was no mistaking it. There really is a big difference between a Snowy Owl and a clump of snow, but I had no time to stop and look.

Luckily, the bird was still there two hours later. If you saw someone shivering by the road with binoculars, camera, tripod and a silly grin, that was me. The owl was perched in a tree just a couple of hundred feet away.

This one was unique, with a distinct black line on one side of the neck. Many of these owls have somewhat distinct markings that can be used to identify individual birds. Birders have noticed that there are also two different Snowy Owls near the Jamestown airport based on the different patterns on the feathers.

Why are they here? According to the bird people at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these invasions of Snowy Owls are thought to have something to do with drops in their natural prey’s population in the Arctic, forcing the owls to move elsewhere for food. But there is not enough information to fully understand what is happening. Cornell takes reports of Snowy Owls at ebird.org, where you can also view a map of the current Snowy Owl invasion.

Owls have been reported as far south as North Carolina and as far away as Bermuda. They have been reported locally in Jamestown, Silver Creek and Kennedy, though none so far in Warren County. If you see a car driving at annoyingly slow speeds past large fields in Warren, that may be me or another owl hunter searching for a Warren County Snowy Owl.

A Snowy Owl search is a great way to spend the shortest day of the year. If you are unwilling to drive all over looking for one, many cultures have long lit lights to brighten the longest night. This year, the winter solstice falls on a Saturday on the third weekend of Winter Night Lights at Audubon. Come celebrate the longest night by pushing the earth around the sun at Audubon and seeing all the other incredible lights. Winter Night Lights is also coming back for a reprisal weekend on Dec. 27 and 28 from 6-9 p.m.

Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary who saw his first wild Snowy Owl recently. For more information on Audubon, or to find out more about Winter Night Lights, call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org.

Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The center has special holiday hours, please check our website or call. The trails and Liberty, the Bald Eagle, viewing are open from dawn to dusk.