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Nature: Snowy owls once again making their way into Ohio

A snowy owls rests atop a Holmes County feed silo/Jim McCormac

December 17th, 2017

NATURE
Jim McCormac

Four years and two days ago, I wrote a column on snowy owls. That winter saw a massive invasion of these stunning, white arctic predators. At least 170 owls were reported from 59 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Deja vu. In perfect harmony with an oft-cited four-year cycle, the owls are irrupting again. I’ve heard of about 50 owls so far, in perhaps 25 counties. One of these was a brief sighting of a bird near the Main Post Office on Twin Rivers Drive in Columbus.
This winter’s irruption isn’t confined to Ohio. Scores of owls have been reported in a band from Montana and the Dakotas east to the Atlantic coast and in adjacent parts of Canada.
The majority of Ohio reports come from Lake Erie, as is typical. Harbors and the lakeshore provide an abundance of food in the form of gulls, ducks and small rodents. Even in lean owl years, a smattering of birds are found near Lake Erie.
Small rodents called lemmings drive the great white owls’ movements. These small tundra-dwelling mammals have boom and bust cycles that peak about every four years. Apparently they reached a crescendo in the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec last summer, about 1,500 miles north of Columbus. This region also fostered the owl boom that triggered the invasion of four winters ago.
When lemming numbers soar, snowy owls respond en masse. Through some poorly understood homing ability, owls descend on lemming-rich tundra regions, while all but abandoning areas of low lemming numbers. Their frequency of nesting skyrockets, and nest success rates go up.
Scads of owlets are produced during lemming explosions. Once the arctic winter sets in and mammalian pickings get slimmer, these youngsters are forced to flee south. Seasoned adults tend to remain in the far north.
The most famous of the Ohio snowy owls is a bird that appeared on Thanksgiving Day on the farm of Orris Wengerd in Holmes County. Word rapidly migrated through the birding community, and owl enthusiasts soon converged on the scene.
I visited the Wengerd farm on Dec. 4, twelve days after the owl’s initial appearance. It wasn’t hard to find. While driving in on the adjacent county road, I saw the bird sitting in a field about one-third mile off. I drove into the farm and the designated parking area, and while getting out camera gear, the owl flew to the top of a feed silo about 100 feet away.

My intended short visit turned into more than seven hours, as like so many others, I became enchanted by the massive white bird. At one point, it spotted a vole in a pasture about 100 yards off, dropped from its perch, sailed down and bagged the rodent. It mostly rested atop silos and a barn — as with other owls, snowies hunt primarily at night.

At the time of my visit, about 700 birders had visited the farm. The owl remains as of this writing, and visitors probably number nearly 1,000 now. The Wengerds run a busy operation — mostly chickens and dairy cows — but have been amazingly hospitable in sharing their arctic visitor with all comers. On behalf of the birding community, many thanks to Orris Wengerd and family.

The snowy owl irruption of four winters ago spawned an amazing research project called Project Snowstorm, which studies the habits and movements of these owls. Visit that site at https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/.

And keep an eye out for large white birds. Snowy owls can materialize nearly anywhere. Please let me know of any observations.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

Comments

Dawn Weber said…
This is a good year to play the game "Over there! White object! Trash bag or snowy owl?"

We are seeing them in Missouri too
We have a beautuful snowy owl living in the treeline in our subdivision, Heritage Preserve, off Alton Darby Creek Road in Hilliard. We have a water nature preserve of sorts which hosts various species including snow geese (new this year), Canadian geese, white and blue herons along with mallard ducks and diving ducks.
Lois Phlegar
Anonymous said…
Is the owl still on the farm now?
Jim McCormac said…
I don’t know - haven’t heard any reports for a week or so
Donald Comis said…
Do you have any update since your December 17 column on total number of snowy owls in Ohio this winter?

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