The Elusive Snowy Owl

Dec 7, 2017
HGW snowy owl
Henry Walters

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Native to the Arctic regions, we do not see the stunning snowy owl often (Harry Potter movies, aside). But once in a while this rare visitor from the tundra will migrate further south.

Where Snowy Owls Migrate

Snowy owls are an irruptive species, meaning that where they migration depends on their varying food supply from year to year. The owl’s movements seem to be tied to the availability of two rodents, the brown and arctic lemmings, sweet, pocket-sized, gerbilly creatures whose populations soar and plummet more wildly than the stock market.

A summer with lots of lemmings means plenty of food for young owls; that, in turn, means lots of owls survive to adulthood. In winter, those young owls must seek their fortune elsewhere in order to survive, so they go south, looking for food in warmer climes. 


Photographs by Sharon Harvell

Great Snowy Owl Invasion of 2013–14

During the rare times that snowy owls reach our relatively tropical latitudes, they often find fame as well. Back in winter of 2013–2014, snowy owls started showing up in the hundreds from Oregon to Louisiana, New England to Bermuda. They’re used to a treeless arctic tundra, so people spotted them along shorelines of oceans and also on agricultural fields and airport lands—often right on the ground. For most snowy owls, this was their first visit to Civilization, and as a result, they often act surprisingly “tame” around their human admirers. As you can see from these photos, they seem almost to play to the camera.


Photograph by Aiden Moser

Our fascination is warranted. If this owl is a visitor from a harsher, unintelligible world, then why is it dressed up as a cuddly child’s toy? The strange gaze coming at you out of those narrowed eye-slits, bright yellow around coal-black centers, manages to be both comically nearsighted and frighteningly alien. This, you think, is a bird that’s not afraid of man nor beast. Its beak is hardly visible behind its muffling facial feathers, yet it yawns to reveal a revolting, amoxicillin-pink mouth and tongue. Enormous feet, its main weaponry, are covered in thick feathers: danger walks around in white slippers.


Photograph by Aiden Moser

But why did the snowy owls flight south? It turns out, many owls actually fly north in the winter to hunt the ducks which collect in open pools between banks of Arctic ice. The warming climate may be making such hunting impossible, forcing many more snowies southward to find food in our backyards. What’s a feast for photographers this winter may spell eventual famine for these owls. Is this year’s irruption the first of many, and if so, how long can the fragile tundra support the bird’s population? 


Photograph by Andre Moraes

If you hear about a snowy owl appearance, drop everything! Harry Potter’s bird is a rare and magical sight indeed.

Love owls? Here are more fascinating owl facts.

About This Blog

Field Notes From the Woods, written by Henry Walters, shares observations and ruminations on plants, wildlife, weather, and other facets of nature. Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Reader Comments

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Did I see a snowy owl? I

Did I see a snowy owl? I live up river on the southern Oregon coast. At dusk two nights ago, an all white owl swooped silently overhead as I was near a stand of Spruce trees. Awesome.

INTERESTING DESCRIPTION I

INTERESTING DESCRIPTION

I find it odd and a bit disconcerting that the author, a naturalist, teacher and falconer, would choose to describe the owls' "amoxicillin pink mouth" as "revolting".

Interesting! I hope that

Interesting! I hope that everyone's weekend was both great and safe,enjoyed the recent holiday that we've had,having a good week and has another good weekend!

Snowy owl is absolutely

Snowy owl is absolutely beautiful.Its such a pleasure just to see an owl,on occasion.How wonderful it would be to see a snowy owl.You people are fortunate.

I love the descriptive

I love the descriptive phrases, " amoxicillin-pink tongue, and danger walks around in white slippers", among others. Definitely gives depth to the pictures. Thank you.

I, too like the descriptions

I, too like the descriptions given for these beautiful creatures.

the 'open pools' in southern

the 'open pools' in southern Canada were frozen by the colder temperatures this winter, so the ducks that normally winter there were farther south, or more toward the coasts. Wasn't aware that southern Canada had 'arctic ice.' Heavy snows also provide more protection for lemmings against above-snow predators.

Warming? LOL. I did not

Warming? LOL. I did not realize that F.A. was a left-wing, progressive ideological site. Who knew? Well, I do now.

This is such a wonderful

This is such a wonderful article, it's a shame how after reading one word, you shut down and go into rejection mode.

Agree. Very well-written

Agree. Very well-written piece.

It's cyclical. Every so many years, the rodent population seems to crash and, especially cold years like this one, the birds just go elsewhere.

He sure doesn't read The Old Farmer's Almanac if he thinks it's left-wing. What a knee-jerk reaction. Read their weather predictions and cool Sun theories and you'll see it's not politically motivated.

Gosh Geo J, I didn’t think

Gosh Geo J, I didn’t think the reference to warmer climate was promoting left or right wing politics – just a statement of the present condition. There is less pack ice in the Arctic these days. A warmer Arctic Ocean has vast areas of open ocean and allows the sea ducks to disperse over larger areas. This makes hunting harder for the owls. Warmer air and sea temperatures also increases moisture in the area resulting in more snow cover and makes hunting lemmings harder. The Owls travel south to find food; I don’t think they have registered with any particular political party, they are just hungry :)

Yep! Must throw in a plug for

Yep! Must throw in a plug for global warming.

I've seen more snowy owls

I've seen more snowy owls this winter then in the past. I know sometimes they say the cold drives them down here in northern Michigan. But this winter I have even seen snow hawks and even a pair of golden eagles which I actually had to google to make sure I was Identifying it correctly. I am sure some of it is a part of global warming. This is the worst winter I can remember. I do find them neat an fun to watch. With seeing them being a treat for us since they normally do stay north. Good or bad I can't say but if it keeps up then I have to go for bad.

Absolutely amazing pictures

Absolutely amazing pictures and enjoyed how well they went with your description of the snowy owl--all fluffed up and seeming to play to the camera.

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