Snowy Owls to the left and Snowy Owls to the right. It seems like Snowy Owls are popping up everywhere. That’s most likely because they are.
eBird is describing this year’s invasion of Snowy Owls as one of the most dramatic natural history spectacles in the Northeast, but there have been sightings as far south as Tennessee and one wayward bird in Bermuda.
So, we’ve created this article about the Snowy Owl to help you learn more and find them.
Why are there so many this year?
The short answer is that it’s still a little too early to know for sure. Two years ago saw a similar irruption of Snowy Owls, but this year may even top that. This previous irruption was attributed to a large supply of lemmings in summer that caused a sort of a baby boom. Then in winter, the lemmings population cannot support the influx of Snowy Owls, so they venture down south to find more food.
eBird suggests that the invasion of Snowy Owls has more to do with a robust breeding season than a paucity of lemmings. This is great because it means that the breeding season must have been fantastic for this species that was once rare in these parts of the woods. Their concentration in the Northeast suggests the eastern Arctic had great breeding conditions in summer.
Why were officials at JFK airport shooting owls?
As you’ve probably heard, the New York Daily News reported a story that wildlife officials at JFK airport were culling Snowy Owls (shooting them). The reason for this (not that it was right in any way) was because five Snowy Owls reportedly crashed into planes. After the flight that went down into the Hudson on account of Canada Geese a few years back, it’s understandable that officials are eager to keep birds away. However, there are other ways to do it.
With a compelling image and heartbreaking first line (“The Port Authority doesn’t give a hoot about the lives of snowy owls.”), the article went viral and within a few hours, officials changed their stance. They are now exploring trap-and-release methods of keeping owls away from planes.
Why do Snowy Owls like airports?
Snowy Owls show up in airports because they’re very similar to the habitats the owls are used to. The owls are attracted to open areas like the tundra and the airports are some of the last vestiges of openness, especially in big cities. After flying over cities, some of the only open places are airports.
The bigger issue with this is that disappearing grasslands are displacing these birds, as well as other species, and putting them in harm’s way.
Where can I see Snowy Owls?
If you live in the Northeast, you’re in luck. You almost just have to go to an open locations or along lake edges and you’re bound to see one. A good way to pinpoint exact locations is to do a search of your location in eBird and pull up recent sightings. Here’s a quick note from eBird on where to spot them:
They often focus on hunting ducks, coots, alcids and other waterbirds, so places these birds concentrate may help you locate one. Beachfront areas with sand dunes are among the best areas to find them. Extensive marshes, open fields (especially barren hilltop fields), and of course, airports, are other favored areas.
When you do see one, please submit your info to eBird to help others find the bird and to give scientists more info on this irruption.
How close can I get to the owls?
Stay a safe distance. Like watching any bird, you don’t want to get too close or disturb it in any way. If the bird becomes aware of you, you’re probably too close. The reason you want to give Snowy Owls a lot of space is that they’re often hunting and getting too close will distract the bird or scare away its prey. It’s possible to photograph the bird from quite a ways away.