An irruption brewing this winter for snowy owls?

If you see what looks like a small pile of snow in a cornfield, give it a second look. It could be a snowy owl. (Photo by Sharon Stiteler)

It looks like it’s going to be another good winter for snowy owls – or at least arguing about watching them – in the northern tier of the United States.

Irruptive species like redpolls, siskins and crossbills have been making a southerly appearance in the upper Midwest. However, in late October and early November, snowy owls began to appear on the scene with over 30 individual birds being reported on social media and in the news in Minnesota alone. Along with reports of snowy owls adjacent to Lake Erie in Ohio, downtown Chicago, and even North Carolina, these birds are pushing south in the eastern region of the United States.

Snowy owls capture the attention of birders and photographers. Sometimes this leads to altercations when the crowds gather as people argue over the ethics of baiting snowy owls for photos. Other times, landowners don’t always care to have a crowd of people parked outside their home with scopes and lenses aimed at a bird on top of their roof. In Massachusetts, a snowy owl recently was injured when an irritated homeowner tried to chase it off with a whip while crowds of people watched and photographed the incident. You can read more here.

When we had our last major irruption four winters ago, Project SnowStorm started up as a means to study the many snowy owls that showed up in the United States. We learned quite a bit from that project, one thing being that not all snowy owls are starving when they come this far south. Many are fat and sassy and doing things we didn’t expect like flying over open water on the Great Lakes to grab diving ducks roosting on the water at night.

Project SnowStorm is gearing up for action this winter as birds are moving through. Not only are they looking to put more geolocaters on the owls, they are interested in any photos of birds submitted this year.

You can gain a lot of information on aging and sexing snowy owls from photos of birds in flight. If you happen to capture a flight show of a snowy owl, you can submit to Project SnowStorm here.

If you’d like to spot a snowy owl on your own, look for areas that most resemble the tundra near you. Most of the time that’s going to mean an airport. I’ve spotted them on light posts, next to number markers or on top of utility sheds at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport. If you live along the Great Lakes, check jetties or large chunks of ice. Sometimes you might even find them roosting in a cornfield. I’ve found quite a few during irruptions when I did surveys in the southern part of Minnesota in October and November.

Give the owls their space, and if the birds are on private property, respect the landowner’s wishes.

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