If you think you saw Harry Potter's owl, Hedwig, recently, you are not far off. Snowy owls are moving into the northern part of the U.S. this winter. Here in Idaho, these large, mostly white owls are being seen in numerous locations. A large population of lemmings in the Arctic has contributed to high nesting success in these tundra-dwelling owls. Now that winter has arrived, young owls moving to wintering areas are not able to compete for food with adult owls. As a result, these young birds are heading south across Canada, into the United States in search of prey. Observations across the country indicate that many of the snowy owls that are being seen are, in fact, young birds.
The wide-spread movements of birds in the winter is known as an irruption. It is typically seen in species such as pine siskins, common redpolls, and red-breasted nuthatches. These seasonal movements are often related to food, with birds leaving their normal range in years when the seeds they feed upon are not abundant. Lack-of-food also causes irruptions of several species of owl, although this does not appear to be the case with the irruption of snowy owls this winter.
Snowy owls are on the wish list of many birdwatchers and wildlife photographers. These birds prefer open fields and marshes in the winter where they catch rodents and birds. They can often be seen during the day, sitting on the ground or perched on fence posts or other open perches. Wildlife watchers observing these owls need to make sure to keep their distance. In addition to their long flight, these young birds are still learning the finer points of hunting. Many are able to catch only enough prey to barely survive. Disturbing these birds will cause them to use precious energy that is needed for hunting and staying warm. Using binoculars, spotting scopes, and telephoto lenses to observe or photograph the owls will lessen the chance of getting too close and disturbing the owl. Enjoy these magnificent visitors from the far north!