Most snowy owls normally live year-round in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other sites north of Alaska’s Brooks Range; a few overwinter in the Northern Plains and New England. But this fall they are spreading across the United States in great numbers and turning heads. The nearly two-foot-tall, predominantly white owls – Harry Potter’s Hedwig is a snowy – are hard to miss.
Sharp-eyed folks at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state have reported sightings. Other sightings come from as far east as Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts and as far south as Kansas. Snowy owls have also been spotted in Connecticut, Maine, New York, Vermont, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and North Dakota.
Why do snowy owls sometimes fly south en masse? Snowy owls’ favorite prey is small rodents called lemmings, which are notorious for boom and bust population cycles. Biologists think the owls’ sudden upsurge south from the Arctic occurs when lemmings are in short supply. See a map of snowy owl sightings in the Lower 48, compiled this fall from reports on eBird and state bird listservs. (Check the map again in a few days, and see how sightings have multiplied.)
Unlike many other owls, snowy owls are active in the daytime. They tend to perch at high points overlooking open sites such as beaches and airports. Exhausted from their long flights, some starve if prey is scarce.
Read more about refuge sightings of snowy owls on the Refuge System’s Facebook page. Katie Brashear Koch wrote recently, “We had an adult female at the USFWS Marquette Biological Station in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this morning!” She took a photo of it perched on a power pole. She added that there have been sightings of the owls across the Upper Peninsula for the past two weeks, with each day seeming to bring more.
See the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for additional information on snowy owls.