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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Snowy Owl, a winter migrant rarely observed in Ky., but not unheard of

The spotting of Snowy Owls in northern parts of Kentucky is a rare occurance that only happens a few times each decade. (Photo from Wkipedia Commons)

A glimpse of this winter migrant might be on the holiday wish list of birdwatchers in Kentucky, and bordering states to the north along the Ohio River.

That’s because the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), a large raptor rarely observed in the region, spends most of the year in Canada and Alaska.

In late fall and winter, large numbers of Snowy Owls sometimes appear south of the Canadian border in the northern Great Lakes states and along the Atlantic Coast in New England. This sends local birdwatchers into a frenzy and attracts media attention to wherever the birds congregate. The term biologists use for this phenomena is irruption, when birds or animals migrate into an area in abnormally large numbers.

(Photo by Glenn Bartley, Audubon Society)

But, a sighting of just one of these large, all-white owls in southern Illinois, southern Indiana, southern Ohio and northern Kentucky is really special, a rare event that only happens a few years each decade.

So far this fall there have only a couple of sightings in the region.

The most recent was reported November 26 by News 5, an ABC affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio.

A Snowy Owl was observed by an experienced birdwatcher at Mosquito Lake in Trumbull County, near Cortland, Ohio, just east of Cleveland.

A recently documented sighting in Kentucky was in 2017, when a Snowy Owl, though to be a juvenile male, was observed in Sparta, in Gallatin County, near the Kentucky Speedway. Prior to that the most recent sighting in Kentucky was believed to have been in 2014.

In an article published in Louisville’s Courier-Journal newspaper on December 18, 2017, Kate Slankard, avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said “the extent of the migration of Snowy Owls is tough to predict because it depends on a variety of factors up north, including weather, food supply, and how successful the birds were in reproducing.”

There could also be other factors that influence migrations that are a mystery to biologists, she added.

Range and Distribution

The Snowy Owl breeds on the Arctic tundra of Canada, primarily the islands of the Arctic Archipelago.

Canada’s Arctic tundra is north of the boreal forest tree line and is an area of more than one million square miles or 26 percent of the country’s landmass.

The owl’s preferred wintering grounds — grasslands, marshes and coastal beaches — includes all of Canada to the south, Alaska, Canada’s Maritime Provinces, and parts of the Lower 48 states, from Montana, eastward to Maine.

Size and Coloration

Snowy Owls spends most of its life in Canada and Alaska (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

The Snowy Owl is heavy-bodied, has a large head without ear tufts, and yellow eyes.

Adults are 20 to 27 inches in length, with a wingspan of 55 to 66 inches.

Males are practically all white but have dusky spots and bars on their feather tips.

Females have more dusky barring on their plumage.

Habitat and Food Habits

This bright white owl stands out in the brown winter landscape and is drawn to wide-open spaces.

In winter it is often found on prairies, farmland, coastal marshes, beaches, even large airports.

Once prey is located the Snowy Owl pursues it in swift flight, catching prey in talons, often hunting by day, and usually from a perch.

Its flight maneuvers include flying low or hovering, watching movement on the ground, zeroing in on prey with its acute vision.

The owl’s diet varies, which is understandable considering its wide-ranging travels. While in the Arctic, this owl feeds almost exclusively on lemmings but will take other mammals including rabbits, hares, voles, and ground squirrels.

In coastal areas the Snowy Owl feeds heavily on birds, including ducks, geese, grebes, murrelets, songbirds and sometimes carrion or fish.

Reproduction and Nesting

The decision to reproduce and nesting success in the Arctic is dependent on the availability of lemmings as a food source for adults and hatchlings.

Snowy Owls are monogamous.

The male owl defends their territory with deep hooting in early spring. In courtship, the male flies with deep, slow wingbeats, often carrying a lemming in his bill, then lands near the female, offering her a meal as he displays with partly raised wings.

(Photo by Scott Linstead, Audubon Society)

The Snowy Owl nest is on a raised site, on top of mound or ridge, always with good visibility in very open tundra. A nest site may be used for several years.

The female builds the nest, a simple depression in the tundra, with no lining added. She lays three to 11 eggs, depending on food availability.

Her eggs are whitish but may become stained in the nest. Incubation is by female only, and lasts for 31 to 33 days.

The male brings food to the females while she is incubating her eggs, that hatch at intervals. The female may be caring for her first young while still incubating her last eggs.

The female remains with the young, feeding them the food brought to her by her mate.

The young usually leave the nest after two to three weeks, but are not able to fly well until about seven weeks, and are fed by their parents for at least nine to 10 weeks.

Catch a glimpse of a Snowy Owl and you’ll have a holiday season to remember.

Stay back and do your viewing quietly through binoculars or a spotting scope from a distance. At all cost, avoid disturbing these owls that are rarely seen in Kentucky, and a long way from home.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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