Hungry Arctic Snowy Owls Traveling As Far South As Florida Barrier Islands

By Rhonda J. Miller on January 11, 2014 10:59 PM EST


An unusually large number of Arctic Snowy Owls have arrived in the U.S. and have been sighted farther south than in previous years.
An unusually large number of Arctic snowy owls have arrived in the U.S. and have been
sighted farther south than in previous years. (Photo credit: PhotoBucket)

When white-plumed snowy owls leave their native Arctic territory and land in unusual habitats like a sand dune on a barrier island in Florida, the fascinating bird is going to cause scientists to wonder and birdwatchers to flock to the scene. Snowy owls do leave their frigid northern breeding grounds and head to more southerly parts of Canada and the northern United States, usually when they run short of their favorite food — lemmings — but the large numbers and the appearance of the picturesque white bird farther south than usual has scientists speculating that the "invasion" of snowy owls may be due to an increase in their population or a shortage of food, according to AccuWeather.

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Reports of snowy owls run from December into January, with birdwatcher websites tracking the birds and tracing the journeys of the birders. Perhaps the southernmost report is of one snowy owl on Little Talbot Island, a barrier island northeast of Jacksonville, Fla.

"The birders have really been excited about it. We've had people come from Alabama and Virginia and we even had one person come from Phoenix," Little Talbot Island State Park Ranger Brian Smith told International Science Times.

"It's really unusual for Florida to have a snowy owl. I think there's only been three reported sightings of snowy owls in Florida before this," said Smith, who saw the bird twice. "I had a pretty good view, I saw her in the dunes. It was from a distance, but she's white and she stands out."

Smith said birders identified the snowy owl as a female. Audubon describes the female of the species as usually having more markings.

Little Talbot Island is one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in northeast Florida and the snowy owl that's attracted attention there must have been quite the sight among the island's more common residents of gopher tortoises, snakes, wading birds, river otters and marsh rabbits that inhabit the "desert-like dunes and salt marshes" described on the LIttle Talbot Island State Park website

Birdwatchers recorded sightings of the LittleTalbot Island snowy owl for 11 days, but the bird had not been seen for a couple of days as of Jan. 14, said Smith. "Maybe she took off or maybe she's still around in the dunes," said Smith.

That either/or might leave some enthusiastic birders who journeyed from afar on a wild goose chase. Take for example, Nathan Goldberg, whose Jan. 4 posting on a birdwatcher listserve said, "I am a birder from Chicago and am looking for a ride to the Little Talbot Island snowy owl. I birded last week, but we were unable to get to the owl. I am staying on Amelia Island at the moment." Amelia Island is a short distance north of LittleTalbot Island.

Snowy owl sightings reported in online comments include Beckley, W. Va. A map created by Cornell University's ebird project and posted by AccuWeather shows sightings in Kansas, Arkansas, and South Carolina. "The sudden influx of these birds, called an 'irruption,' may be the first wave," said Kevin McGowan, a biologist at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, in a statement on the lab's website.  

"More snowy owls are poised to head south looking for food and will be attracted to wide-open expanses, such as airports, because they resemble their native tundra. More than likely these snowy owls are moving south from the Arctic because of a shortage of their favorite food up north — lemmings — or because of a bumper crop of young," said McGowan, who called this the largest-ever influx of Arctic snowy owls into the northeast and Great Lakes states. "We can expect them to stick around through early spring before they head back to the Arctic."

This Artic native - the Snowy Owl -is on a sand dune on Little Talbot Island, a barrier island near Jacksonville, Fla. (Photo credit: Bryan Joe Corder)
This Artic native - the snowy owl - is on a sand dune on Little Talbot Island, a barrier
island near Jacksonville, Fla. (Photo credit: Bryan Joe Corder)

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