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The Birding Paparazzi Are Out!

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Photo by Ernie Hawks Photo by Ernie Hawks

In search of the irruption of the Snowy Owl


The appearance of Snowy Owls in our region has caused quite a stir. The press is noisy with sightings of these big, beautiful raptors. They are rare in our region, but necessity has forced them further south than normal and a large number of Snowy Owls are being spotted this late spring. Consequently, serious birders are out in force with cameras and binoculars in hand, trying to catch of glimpse of these birding celebrities. So what is a Snowy Owl and why are they visiting? 

Snowy Owls are big birds. In the field their dimensions and build might remind a person of a small-headed Great Horned Owl, sans the “horns” (at least visibly, as the Snowy Owl does have a couple of little tufts which are normally hidden away). They are sleek, but heavy birds—on average, the heaviest owl in North America. In fact, they are heavier than even the “bigger” Great Gray Owl. As their name suggests they are a distinctive snowy white, but this is really only true of the males. The female Snowy Owl sports a vivid twill pattern of black and white over its wings and breast, to the top if its head. This is also true of immature males. Still, they are gorgeous birds with or without this coloration. But the mature males are the most distinctive because of their stunning, almost solid-white, coloration.  

So why are they here in our region? The Snowy Owl spends its summers in the high arctic tundra, preying on birds and rodents. In the winter they travel south into sub-arctic regions, all the way down to the upper edges of the northern United States. They are common enough in places such as northern Minnesota that some of my relatives there have snapped photos of them from the highway using cell phones. So seeing the occasional Snowy Owl in our region this time of year might not stop the presses, but the larger than usual numbers has. 

What we are seeing is a phenomenon in the birding world called irruption. An irruption simply means birds moving in large numbers to areas outside of their normal range and irruption can affect many species. This is caused by a food shortage. Basically, these owls we are seeing are hungry birds. This also explains why so many are being spotted during the day. According to my Sibley’s Guide to Birds: “individual (Snowy Owl) birds… seen farther to the south of normal range are often starved and stressed for food, and thus active in daylight. Healthy birds are mainly nocturnal, like other owls.” To be flippant, these birds are Okies, hungry and looking for opportunities to support themselves, even if that means traveling to places they would normally not travel to and working shifts that they normally would not work. Some have even been spotted as far south as Dallas, Texas! Desperation is the key word here. This suggests to me that a lot of these birds are not going to make it back home. 

Carpe Aves—seize the birds! If you have the time and the means, get on out there and add a semi-exotic bird to your life list. There are more than enough birding sites on the Internet to help you find the best site near your locale. And if you can’t figure out how to do an Internet search, ask your local teenager, even pre-teen; I’m sure they’ll patiently guide you to birding nirvana. Or just sit back, prop up your feet, and read about four intrepid birders and their search for the Snowy Owl along the Clark Fork watershed. Start here with Brian's story.

Happy birding! 


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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

A Bird in Hand, Snowy Owl, irruption

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