Birds & Birding

Snowy Owl Invasion!

December 17, 2013

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Snowy Owls are showing up all along the east coast. Photo: Pat Haines under a Creative Commons license
Snowy Owls are showing up all along the east coast. Photo: Pat Haines under a Creative Commons license

By Tim Boucher, senior conservation geographer

Last winter it was the finches.

This winter, especially on the east coast, it’s all about the Snowy Owls – a sudden and dramatic invasion.

The invasion has caught every one off guard – usually they occur every four years or so. Since the last one was in the winter of 2011-12, no one was expecting such a massive invasion this winter.

The reports are staggering – people in south-eastern Canada are seeing up to 200 in a day.

They’re being reported as far south as Charleston, South Carolina, and east to Bermuda (yes, in the middle of the ocean).

In my neck of the woods (the Washington, DC area), as many as ten are within striking distance – some quite close.  Airports are a favorite haunt, since there are open grasslands, favored by rodents, which are in turn eaten by the owls.

Small numbers of owls head south every year. Theories abound as to the reasons why there are such high numbers this year. But one thing we know for sure, there must have been a very successful breeding season up north as most of the birds we are seeing are juveniles.

Juveniles are usually the ones that make these dramatic movements – mostly being pushed away by stronger adults, as there is competition for food at this time of year. Later, they will be trying to find their own territories.

If you want to find out if there is one near where you live, either hop onto eBird where people have been reporting them, or find your local birding listserv and read the archives – if one has been seen, it will surely have been reported.

My advice if there is one in your area? Don’t wait; go see it immediately.

For as I learned the hard way, it might move on pretty quickly, looking for more favorable hunting grounds. And if you do see one, report it on eBird – so that scientists can gather data on this invasion.

And finally, please practice the safe birding rules – don’t get too close and don’t harass the bird (or any bird for the matter) – it has flown a long way, is stressed out, hungry, and is trying to get through the winter.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
Timothy Boucher

Tim is a senior conservation geographer at The Nature Conservancy. Working in international conservation science for the past 16 years, he has used remote sensing and geographic information science to assess habitat condition, protection, and threats. He has conducted field assessments on six continents, applying spatial analyses to a wide range of conservation issues ranging from marine spawning aggregations in Belize to global land-cover analysis. More from Timothy

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13 comments

  1. with my respect to mr naturalist, i’m surprised that this article didn’t include more about preferred habitats other than just airports. any dope can figure out ‘go to where someone else just saw one’.
    : )

    1. I understand,’fred the rabbit’, that this magnificent owl
      loves rabbit for lunch, especially rude ones :) !

  2. Here in Anne Arundel county, one was spotted around Galesville last week. One was seen on the South River over the weekend, and another one was spotted yesterday on Route 2 in Edgewater.

    I may have seen one Monday morning, but it flew by so fast, I couldn’t confirm it. I’m in Arundel On The Bay.

    I’ll keep looking!

  3. Here in Anne Arundel county, one was spotted around Galesville last week. One was seen on the South River over the weekend, and another one was spotted yesterday on Route 2 in Edgewater.

    Yet another one was spotted in Quiet Waters Park Tuesday morning or Monday evening.

    I may have seen one Monday morning, but it flew by so fast, I couldn’t confirm it. I’m in Arundel On The Bay.

    I’ll keep looking!

  4. Great post, Tim, and check out this blog from an observer in Newfoundland – http://brucemactavish1.blogspot.com/

    He speculates that a great lemming year in northern Quebec and a resulting banner year for owl nesting has led to this unprecedented influx of snowies. Up here in Massachusetts, they are verywhere, and I saw 5 in one day on Plum Island 3 weeks ago.

  5. Many Snowy Owls have been spotted along the coast in Southern NH and Northern MA. Most recently I got the chance to photograph an individual at Salisbury Beach in MA in the salt marsh and atop a pine tree over the course of several hours on 12.19.13. There have been as many as 6 owls sighted in a single day on Plum Island and Salisbury Beach.

  6. The owl in Asheville has affectionately been named Tundra. Our Transylvania county community has rallied around her to support her as when she arrived she was emaciated and was only 1.8 pounds! She is now up to about 4 pounds. She will need to be around 6 pounds before she will be released to be sure she can survive the flight back and live successfully. The website link I’ve provided is a way to keep up with her and provide additional support. We had one fundraiser and are having another Feb 23rd that is geared more toward families. We welcome anybody who wants to come and support her. http://brenda-jean-doingtherightthing.blogspot.com/2014/01/update-tundra-has-been-moved-to-outdoor.html

    http://dailywaterfall.com/10217/63775/a/friends-of-tundra-paint-it-forward-at-fundraising-event-brevard-nc

  7. There was also another snowy owl in Washington DC who was seen and a week later was hit by a bus. She has a broken toe and then some head trauma. She has since been checked out by a vet and is going to be ok.

  8. […] focused on how lemmings shape nearly every aspect of arctic habitats. They may well be behind the snowy owl invasion occurring in the eastern United States, and lemming populations affect other wildlife from foxes to […]