Saturday, December 14, 2013

The origin of all these Snowy Owls?

As about everyone who is into birds in eastern North America knows, this is the winter of the Snowy Owl (I wrote about them HERE, and am keeping an updated map and numbers of the owls in Ohio). Even scores of nonbirders are aware of the incursion of these massive tundra owls, thanks to intensive coverage in the media. A common question surrounding this phenomenon centers on their origins. Just about everyone I've talked to about Snowy Owls wants to know where they originated.

That's an easy question, in a general sense. The Arctic tundra. But that answer covers a lot of ground. The tundra, of course, blankets the upper rim of the entire North American continent (not to mention polar regions around the entire top of the world). So, the refined question becomes: "Where exactly are these owls coming from?". That's often a hard thing to pinpoint. It's not like the Arctic is crawling with birders, and vast regions of the tundra see few if any people, especially people who are keeping specific tabs on Snowy Owls.

Bruce Mactavish provides the likely answer on his Newfoundland Birding Blog. Bruce has birding the Canadian island of Newfoundland for nearly 40 years, and his is a well known name amongst birders. We're pretty happy with our 61 (reported to date) Snowy Owls in Ohio, and that is an incredible number. Just imagine last weekend in southeastern Newfoundland. Bruce and other birders found a total of 301 (yes, 301!) Snowy Owls during their weekend wanderings! He has absolutely stunning photos of some of these birds on his blog.

Anyway, Bruce made various inquiries of researchers who were in the high reaches of the tundra, where the Snowy Owls breed, last summer. To cut to the chase, it appears that the northernmost reaches of Quebec experienced a peak population of lemmings, and the owl nesting success spiked big time in response to the bounty of prey. Mactavish shared an amazing photo of an owl nest ringed with the carcasses of 70 lemmings augmented with eight voles posted on his blog. The eggs haven't even hatched yet! There was certainly no shortage of food for those owlets, and one might assume that most of the other nests in northern Quebec also resembled fortresses surrounded by ramparts of dead rodents. Researchers operating in tundra regions west, east, and north of this area reported low to normal numbers of Snowy Owls.

The area in red shows the approximate region where our Snowy Owls likely originated. Owls have been turning up all over the Great Lakes region, and the eastern seaboard of Canada and the U.S. Some of have made it as far south as North Carolina and Bermuda (yes, Bermuda!). Owls are still turning up, so keep your eyes peeled.


Tom Arbour said...

That is one heck of a lemming pile. Thanks for the link. It's too bad there are no rural mail carrier lemming surveys in the arctic.

Mary Huey said...

Thanks for sharing this, Jim!! The lemming stash is amazing!!

Jimbo said...

How could a snowy owl possibly fly the 700+ miles to bermuda?

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone! Jimbo, amazingly, there is at least one prior Bermuda record, I believe. Snowy owls are strong flyers and occasionally turn up on ships well out at sea, too.

Jimbo said...

Thanks, Jim! I guess that explains it. I'm really hoping to see one of these amazing creatures this year.