There is a special place in my heart for photographing white birds, be it albino birds, great egrets, cattle egrets, swans or the character pictured today. He comes from way up north in tundra country, in the Arctic, and shows up in Western New York only occasionally during winter.
It seems as though snowy owls are spotted in the United States every four to five years or so, and this may be the year we’re seeing an influx of them again. I have received multiple reports about sighting of these birds over the past few weeks in Niagara, Erie and Orleans counties.
The snowy owl is a big bird, about 24 inches tall with a five-foot wingspan, and is almost pure white with dark spotting. The female has more spots than the male, as do the younger owls, and thus appears darker. The snowy owl’s head is round without ear tufts and is set off with yellow eyes, typical of an owl.
In its home range, the snowy owl’s diet consists of lemmings (a small rodent that looks much like a large mouse with long fur and a short tail), ground squirrels and hares. When those species are less plentiful, the snowy owl turns towards ground-nesting feathered prey: ducks, ptarmigan, and sometimes goose. Snowy owls hunt by soaring above the tree-less tundra. As they head south for the winter they take advantage of fence posts, telephone poles, piers and other raised spots from which to watch for mice, rats and small birds and animals. They like open terrain — which is most similar to their native tundra — and are often spotted around airports and large farms.
In tundra county, the snowy owl builds its nest on the ground, using only debris that is within reach. This bird basically scrapes together somewhat of a nest and rims it with their own molted feathers. Egg clutches vary, from four to as many as 13 depending on how abundant the food supply is. When the eggs hatch the owlets are covered with black down that persists until they’re about a month-and-a-half old. During nesting, the greatest danger is weather conditions, which may be cold and rainy for days on end or for the whole season. The male does all of the hunting to provide food for the family while the female tends to the nest until the young are able to move out. Both parents are very aggressive in defending the nest and have been known to drive away wolves.
Snowy owls are daytime hunters, which is lucky for us because we’re better able to see them! These birds usually live 10 years or more in the wild and have been known to live up to 28 years in captivity.
When the lemming population is high, snowy owls remain in the tundra all winter, but every few years the rodent’s population hits a low. In these years the owls migrate south into Canada and the northern areas of the United States including New York state.
I think this is going to be one of those good years for us, since a number of these owls have already been spotted at the Erie Basin, the Olcott piers, Golden Hill State Park and a few other places near the Lake Ontario shoreline.
Since 2014, associates of the outfit named Project SNOWstorm (firstname.lastname@example.org) have been putting transmitters and leg bands on snowy owls in the United States, to learn more about them and their population status. So far a number of things have been discovered, one thing being that snowy owls are not as plentiful up north as once thought. It may be of interest to you to check out their website. If you spot one of these beautiful birds, call or email me and I will see that the right folks are informed.
One request, especially to local farmers, is to back off on the rat and mouse poison. These animals often go out into the open when poisoned, which sets them up to be caught by snowy owls. A number of years ago, I discovered and began photographing a snowy owl near a local farm, and one day the farmer called to tell me the owl had been sitting on the ground under a bush all day and he was concerned. I went and retrieved the owl to take him to a vet and he died on the way. Later testing showed the owl had consumed rat poison.
Tune in next week for some tips on locating and photographing snowy owls.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or email@example.com .