For weeks I’ve been hearing about snowy owl sightings in the Champlain Valley, even a few in Essex. But I’ve glimpsed neither plumage nor predator’s gaze of a snowy owl. Fortunately Essex resident Catherine Seidenberg spotted this handsome juvenile in a tree nearby. Tell us about your own snowy owl sightings in the comments below or send us a photo and we’ll add it to this post.
About Snowy Owls
My embarrassingly limited knowledge of raptors in general, and owls in particular, under-qualifies me to offer a definitive introduction to the snowy owl. Instead I’ll share with you several considerably more learned sources to prepare you for your own snowy owl sighting.
These large owls breed on the Arctic tundra, where females lay a clutch of 3 to 11 eggs… (National Geographic)
The big birds known as Bubo scandiacus reach a height of 20 to 27 inches and… (NYTimes.com)
The snowy owl is the largest owl in North America, as this predator has a wing span of about 4.5 feet and often weighs in excess of 4 pounds. (As a comparison, the barred owl has a wing span of 3.5 feet and averages from 1 to 2 pounds in weight, while the great horned owl has a wing span of roughly 4 feet and weighs from 3 to 4 pounds.) (The Adirondack Almanack)
Parents are territorial and will defend their nests against all comers—even wolves… The snowy owl is a patient hunter that perches and waits to identify its prey before soaring off in pursuit. Snowy owls have keen eyesight and great hearing, which can help them find prey…. The owls deftly snatch their quarry with their sharp talons.
A snowy owl’s preferred meal is lemmings—many lemmings. An adult may eat more than 1,600 lemmings a year, or three to five every day. The birds supplement their diet with rabbits, rodents, birds, and fish. (National Geographic)
The snowy owl, with its pure white plumage marked with occasional dark spots, is unmistakable in appearance… The concentration of conspicuous dark patches over its body can be used to determine the relative age and sex of some individuals. Young snowy owls have an abundance of regular spaced dark spots, especially on their back and sides. As the bird ages, its loses some of these spots each time it molts. Males also develop fewer spots than to females. Consequently, a snowy owl that is almost pure white, except for only a few small dark specks is an older male, and a heavily spotted individual is a young female… (The Adirondack Almanack)
Snowy Owl Irruption
For months North Country birding enthusiasts and professional bird watchers have been reporting and documenting snowy owl sightings northern New York and the Champlain Valley. North Country Public Radio‘s Todd Moe interviewed Lake Placid birder and wildlife photographer Larry Master (listen to interview), offering an excellent perspective on the snowy owl irruption.
This powerful white owl is emblematic of the far north, spending the summer from treeline north to the northernmost land of Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia. Even in winter, most snowy owls in North America stay near the Arctic Circle, with only a few drifting to southern Canada and the northern United States.
At least, that’s what happens in an average year. About one winter in every four, the numbers of snowy owls moving south in early winter are noticeably increased. Then the ghostly birds are spotted in dozens of locations south of the Canadian border, creating excitement among the local birders. (Audubon Magazine)
The majority of the invading owls are heavily marked young birds, hatched this year, so evidently snowy owls had very good breeding success this year in the eastern Canadian Arctic. And evidently there isn’t enough food in the Arctic now to sustain them, so they are moving south. (Audubon Magazine)
Bird experts are hypothesizing that snowy owls left the Arctic winter and headed south for a couple of reasons. One, there may be a shortage of lemmings – small rodents – for them to eat in their home ranges. They also had a successful reproductive season this past summer. ~ Mike Lynch (Adirondack Daily Enterprise)
Often the owls move after large numbers of birds were raised in nests during the arctic summer. The young birds then find it difficult to find enough to eat – they are often not adept at hunting and may be pushed out by older owls during leaner times… The owls which have arrived in our region have likely been feeding poorly for months and as cold temperatures and snow make their food more difficult to find as the season changes, they are forced to head south. ~ Alan Belford (Lake Placid, Adirondacks)
Dr. Kevin McGowan, a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says… “More than likely these Snowy Owls are moving south from the Arctic because of a shortage of their favorite food up north—lemmings, or because of a bumper crop of young… We can expect them to stick around through early spring before they head back to the Arctic again.” (The Adirondack Almanack)
What started as a few scattered early reports of Snowy Owls turned into a flood of owls seemingly overnight… this year they are staging an invasion… Most of the owls which come through our region will pass through the Champlain and St. Lawrence Valleys where there are more fields and open landscapes than there are in the forested Adirondacks. ~ Alan Belford (Lake Placid, Adirondacks)
So keep your eyes open for solitary large white birds in farm fields, air strips and other tundralike treeless spaces, where they hunt mice and voles by day. ~ Mary Thill (Adirondack Life blog)
If you are lucky enough to see one of these majestic birds, please observe it from a respectful distance. Many of the snowy owls moving south are inexperienced young birds, already stressed by hunger, and it may hurt their chances of survival if they are repeatedly approached and flushed by humans. Snowy owls favor very open habitats, such as fields, dunes, and marshes, so it should be possible to get good views of them from a long distance away. (Audubon Magazine)
It… is important to remember that birders and photographers interested in watching the owls must not approach them too closely. Owls which are disturbed are spending unnecessary energy which they need to conserve to survive. Even a seemingly slight amount of energy can be catastrophic for an owl’s chance to live. And so hikers, birders, photographers, and dog walkers should all be very careful not to approach the Snowy Owls. Owls which appear unusually sleepy, sluggish, or disinterested in their surroundings are often in bad shape and it is likely worth calling a local wildlife rehabilitator to try to help them. ~ Alan Belford (Lake Placid, Adirondacks)
Cornell’s Snowy Owl Sightings
Although the following video was made by Gerrit Vyn from Cornell Labs, most of the footage looks as if it could have been shot locally. It offers an impressive wrap up to this snowy owl sightings mashup. I hope that you enjoy it. And if you’re lucky enough to document one of these ghostly raptors, or you’d like to submit a follow-up post about snowy owls, please contact us. Thank you.
- Snowy owls invade NY in historic numbers (northcountrypublicradio.org)
- Who? Where? Snowy owls are flocking to East Coast (cbsnews.com)