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.
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A gorgeous juvenile female snowy owl briefly catches your narrator with its piercing gaze. It's doing its Linda Blair/Exorcist trick - twisting its head 180 degrees to look straight behind. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae - double our number - which allows them such flexibility.
These visitors from the high arctic have irrupted big time into Ohio and adjacent regions, with new birds coming to light nearly every day. Probably 80 or so have thus far been reported in the state, and some of them have stuck around favored spots and become local celebrities.
I went to visit one of these birds this morning - the animal above, which was found last Friday by Doug Overacker and Julie Karlson at C.J. Brown Reservoir near Springfield. In the four days since its discovery, many people have visited as is nearly always the case when one of these white wonders appears near a large population center or is otherwise very accessible.
And as is always the case, people want to photograph the owls. And th…