Record Numbers Of Arctic Snowy Owls Could Travel South This Winter

By Ajit Jha on December 7, 2013 2:57 PM EST

snowy owl
Snowy owls could appear in record numbers in the U.S. this winter. (Photo: ahisgett, CC BY 2.0)

It could be the most exciting news for bird-watchers, as the snowy owls, typically residents of the Arctic region, have begun setting up their winter residence at beaches and fields far south of the Arctic range, according to the Associated Press.

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To children, snowy owls are most familiar as Harry Potter's pet. But in 2011, they were noticed across the northern half of the U.S. These elusive owls were sighted in dozens of locations from the Midwest to the Northeast, and throughout Mid-Atlantic states as far south as Cape Hatteras, N.C. They are easily sighted, as they are big and white. Active during the day, they hunt for waterfowl, rabbits, mice, and other prey. The ghostlike snowy owls breed on the Arctic tundra. Females lay a clutch of three to 11 eggs, with the size depending on the availability of food. During unusually lean times, a monogamous pair may not breed at all. When they do, however, they become protective of their offspring, and defend nests against ferocious predators, even as big as wolves.

They sometimes migrate south when populations spike or when food sources are scarce. "Snowy owl populations are synchronized with their food source, lemmings," wildlife photographer Lillian Stokes, who co-authors the Stokes bird guides, told the AP. Lemmings are small mouse-like rodents that live in or near the Arctic tundra biomes.

While only a few snowy owls are seen regularly in the U.S., the numbers this year could be historic, according to Stokes. But according to Denver Holt, who has been studying snowy owls in Alaska for 22 years, it's too early to estimate how many. They were sighted in 35 states during 2011, he told the AP. Snowy owls appear in large numbers every four years and they may travel as far south as California, Texas, and Florida, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

"We're just at the beginning of the invasion," Jessie Barrie, a scientist at the Cornell Lab told the AP. "It certainly is at a level that is pretty intense and exciting for bird-watchers, though. There are multiple birds in many locations, an indication of a strong irruption."

There were six sightings on a dock on Lake Ontario's Braddock Bay, near Rochester, N.Y., while Stokes and her husband also spotted nine on the New Hampshire coast. An additional 20 were also spotted in New Jersey - one of them at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway, N.J., which attracted several bird watchers on Wednesday, according to the AP.

Snowy owls are a "magical bird," said Barrie, and they can get "people really excited about seeing birds and engaging with the natural world." 

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