Snowy owls invade Pennsylvania

By Mark Nale Northcentral Correspondent

State College, Pa. — Most Pennsylvania hunters and anglers live
their entire lives without ever seeing one snowy owl.

This winter, however, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and even Maryland
residents are getting a real treat – an invasion of snowy owls.
They are large, mostly white owls that normally reside of the
Arctic tundra in Alaska and northern Canada.

The first snowy owl showed up on Dec. 18, near Lyons in Berks
County, about halfway between Reading and Allen-town. It stayed
around the same general area, thrilling onlookers through the
Christmas holiday. The second snowy was spotted on a dairy farm
near Belleville, Mifflin County, in early January.

“I traveled to Belleville to see the first snowy owl of my
life,” said Jen Lee, assistant intramural director at Penn State.
“I was shocked to see that big bird here in Pennsylvania. Then, a
week later, I spotted another snowy owl near State College, just a
mile from where I work. It was along Park Avenue (on the University
Park campus), actually under Route 322. That was just crazy.”

Snowy owls, the largest North American owls, stand up to 27
inches tall and have a 5-foot wingspan. They are very rare and
irregular winter visitors to Pennsylvania, with outdoor enthusiasts
in the northwest seeing them more often than in other areas of the
state.

At least three snowy owls also have been observed in New Jersey
this winter, with Internet reports listing them as having been
sighted in Cape May, along the south Jersey shore, and Stone
Harbor. Three more have been seen at different locations in
Maryland.

During rare winters, snowy owls have been spotted as far south
as Missouri, South Carolina or even Louisiana.

It is believed that shortages in the north country prey
population, particularly lemmings and hares, send the large owls
southward in search of food. When in Pennsylvania, they are usually
seen in open fields, along highways and at airports. These areas
offer open habitat much like the tundra.

Snowy owls are opportunistic predators and will feed on whatever
nature offers. They have been known to eat carrion, voles, mice,
rabbits, birds and even fish. Lee observed the Centre County owl
killing and eating a starling. Snowy owls will feed during the
middle of the day, but are most active at dawn and dusk.

The feathers of snowy owls, the heaviest owls, make them look
much heavier than their actual weight of about 4 pounds. Their
dense plumage is an adaptation against the frigid Arctic
weather.

Thick fluffy feathers completely protect their feet and even
cover their beaks. Females are usually heavier than males, but both
sexes are the same color.

The owl’s size and coloration make it easy to identify. Barn
owls have white breasts, but the snowy owl is the only mostly white
owl. Adults usually have some tan or grey barring. Immature owls
have darker markings on their white bodies than adults.

Differing coloration also makes it possible to identify
individual birds. According to Lee, the Belleville and State
College owls had different markings and therefore were different
birds. One of the Maryland owls had the darker barring usually
exhibited by immature snowy owls.

The Canadian visitors might stick around into early March before
flying north to the tundra. The irregular southern migrations of
snowy owls, called irruptions, occur about every five years, but
are not predictable.

An Internet search for “Pennsylvania Snowy Owls” will direct you
to the most recent sightings.

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