snowy owls (Photo: winnu, Creative Commons license)

Record numbers of snowy owls have ventured south this winter, creating a not-often-in-a-lifetime opportunity for bird-lovers in Canada and parts of the U.S. (Photo: winnu, Creative Commons license)

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Sometimes you just need a change of scenery.

Most years, snowy owls (Bubo scandiacus*) are homebodies, satisfied to stay put in the sweeping, flat, treeless tundra, even as calendar pages flip past the holidays and into a new tax season.  Most of their snowbird neighbors take off each winter to visit second homes in warmer latitudes, but snowy owls prefer staycations. What’s not to like? The mosquitoes, midges, and biting flies disappeared with the first snow. You’ve got the place all to yourself so there’s less competition for a table at the best places to eat and hang out. Not to mention, traveling can be such a headache these days—choosing your route, navigating national borders, weather delays. By the time you reach your destination you’re more exhausted than when you left!

And yet…

snowy owl in flight by pat gaines cc

… every now and then there comes a year when the snowies watch with those enormous cadmium-yellow eyes as everyone else heads for the flyways, and beneath that placid, nearly expressionless exterior, wanderlust begins to stretch its wings… then flutter… flap… and soar.  Big Pharma claims to have the prescription for cabin fever (aka, seasonal affective disorder, the winter blues, February funk), but it’s a lot more fun to head south in search of adventure, and some landscape variation definitely provides relief.

Let’s not forget, the opportunity to try some new regional cuisine alone must be a huge tourism draw when you’ve been eating lemmings, day in, day out. I mean, just because everyone else is happy dining from the same menu all year long doesn’t mean you have to run with the crowd… right over the cliff. So to speak. Not when there’s bacalhoada in Baltimore, sushi in Seattle, oie rôtie in Quebec,  fagiano alla contadina on The Hill in St. Louis (my own hometown), hasenpfeffer in Philadelphia… the possibilities are vast as the Arctic landscape.

Whatever the reason, the travel bug spread through the snowy owl population this year like a flu epidemic. Thousands of these large, unmistakable owls have been observed from coast to coast in the U.S., and as far south as Oklahoma, delighting bird fans who never dreamed of adding this species to their lifelist.

snowy owl on a telephone pole (Photo: Todd Radenbaugh, Creative Commons license)If a snowy owl visits your town, word will likely spread fast. Weighing in at 3.5—6.5 lbs (1.6—2.9 kg), 2 ft (0.6 m) tall with a wingspan of about 5 ft (1.5 m), this heavy, northernmost North American owl is instantly recognizable and easy to spot. For one thing, it’s diurnal, meaning active during the day (most, but not all, other owls are nocturnal or active at night). Secondly, snowies aren’t shy and retiring, preferring to spend most of their time on a prominent lookout, waiting patiently for their next meal to make a move. Of course, if the surrounding countryside is covered in a blanket of white, they aren’t as conspicuous as when the ground is bare. That’s because snowy owls are a charcoal sketch on a clean, gessoed canvas—their eyes are the only deviation from grayscale. Even their legs and feet are feather-covered, not yellow or orange as is the case for many other avian species.

snowy owlet (Photo: Steve Brace, Creative Commons license)Snowy owlets begin life resembling human toddlers packed into warm down snowsuits, and they’re just as wobbly. As they develop, a heavy mantle of barred dark gray, taupe, and white feathers emerge. Females retain some of this dark scalloping even as they mature. Males, on the other hand, grow lighter with each molt until, while stoically seated, they resemble a snowman (not the three-perfect-spheres kind you see in cartoons and moviesthe fireplug-shaped ones made by real kids). Their demeanor changes dramatically when they take flight, however, from cuddly stuffed animal to sleek, efficient hunter.  Silent, too. Their primaries—flight feathers along the outer edge of a bird’s wing—look as if my hairstylist sister had textured the edge with her razor, so they don’t slice through the air with the same sharp-edged, audible signature of a hawk or eagle.owl vs hawk feathers

The 2011 breeding season produced a bumper lemming crop and, subsequently, larger owl clutch sizes and owlet survival rates. Biologists suspect this may explain why so many of these normally non-migratory birds have hit the road.  The Owl Research Institute  says the irruption (a sudden, unpredictable mass migration) of 2011-2012 is “unbelievable” and “the most significant wildlife event in decades.”

During my undergraduate days I did an internship at the World Bird Sanctuary, where I had a chance to work with snowy owls and other birds of prey. Sadly, I don’t expect to see any snowies myself this year unless I travel back home to Missouri in the next month or so. I live too far south now, even during an irruption of epic proportions, for snowy owls to darken my door. But if you live or travel in North America anywhere above the Mason-Dixon line (that’s the 39th parallel north for all you non-Southerners), keep your eyes peeled for snowmen perched on telephone poles.

Seeing is believing.

[Want to know if snowy owls are spending the winter near you? Check out this range map from eBird.]

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* The International Ornithological Union (IOU) once considered snowy owls the only member of a unique genus, Nyctea scandiaca, but DNA analysis, published in 2002, revealed they are closely related to the great horned owl and other members of the Bubo clan, so their official name was changed.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: winnu (identical owls); Pat Gaines (owl in flight); Todd Radenbaugh (owl on telephone pole); Steve Brace (snowy owlet);  BastienM (long-eared owl  feather, public domain); and David DeHetre (hawk feather).