What A Hoot

The snowy owl phenomenon is not well understood, but the creature’s prevalence in the area has exploded since early December.

“This is the largest irruption of these owls in decades,” said Jeff Tome, Audubon senior naturalist.

According to a previous article in The Post-Journal by Tome, the prevalence of the owls this winter has been highly unusual.

There have been multiple snowy owl sightings in the area recently, including in a field near the Audubon Center, Stillwater Corners and near Spencer Road, according to Tome.

“At least two of them are different,” he said. Tome nicknamed the two owls seen locally “Unibrow” and “Half-Moon,” based on their markings.

Tomes also said that when attempting to identify the sex and age of a snowy owl, it is often difficult to be certain of either quality.

“Immature and female owls look similar, the males are white and females are darker,” Tomes said, noting that generally, the less spots an owl has, the older it is.

Twan Leenders, president of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, added that there is a possibility that snowy owls could be in the area in low numbers every year, but the irruption of the birds have brought increased notoriety this year.

“The snowy owl is big, charismatic and showy,” Leenders said. “Other owl species are probably more important to the local environment … but I’m encouraged to see people pulling over to watch the snowy owls. Hopefully the interest will continue in other ways.”

Leenders said that the wide variety of species found in the area, including owls, is often underestimated.

The snowy owls tend to prefer locations near flat, open fields. Generally, the owls will not perch on tree branches, instead preferring fence posts and electric poles.

Although snowy owls can survive in warm climates – at least one has been spotted as far south as Bermuda – their typical habitat is the Arctic tundra, found in Canada and northern Alaska.

Leenders said that a movement called “Project Snowstorm” has dedicated itself to attaching solar-powered transmitters onto snowy owls found in the Northeast and Great Lakes, in order to better understand the owls’ movement patterns. The transmitters, strapped onto the owls’ backs not unlike a backpack, utilize GSM cell towers to transmit the data. If an owl flies out of cell tower range, the transmitters are able to hold 100,000 locations in a memory bank, uploading the data once the bird is back in cell tower range.

“Usually there aren’t this many owls available to collect data on,” Leenders said.

The transmitters are able to provide location data in intervals as short as every 30 seconds, according to Project Snowstorm’s website, www.projectsnowstorm.org. Currently, multiple owls are being tracked; their locations are available through the project’s website.

Tome added that a local group of bird banders is looking to band snowy owls found in the area, marking them to see if the same birds appear in the area in future years.

Scientists are currently uncertain regarding the cause of the snowy owl invasion, but believe that an overabundance of food in their natural habitat caused a banner year, with an unusual large number of owls being born, leading to more owls flying south.

In other news, the Audubon Society is hosting its annual Snowflake Festival on Saturday, which will include a mini-program on snowy owls at 2:30 p.m. Visit www.snowflakefestival.wordpress.com or call 569-2345 for more information.