Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Snowy Owls are being seen

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird migration, Bird sightings Updated: November 21, 2011 - 9:36 AM

A Snowy Owl was seen in North St. Paul on Sunday, this winter’s first report of this species in the metro area. Within the past week, three Snowy Owls were seen near Warren in Marshall County, one in Cass County, and another near McGregor in Aitkin County. Reports also are coming from North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

A Snowy Owl was seen in North St. Paul on Sunday, this winter’s first report of this species in the metro area. Within the past week, three Snowy Owls were seen near Warren in Marshall County, one in Cass County, and another near McGregor in Aitkin County. Reports also are coming from North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Mike Hendrickson of Duluth, top-notch birder and birding guide, says on his Sax-Zim web site that this might be an irruption. (See sax-zimbog.com/).

At fairly regular intervals of several years, northern owls of various species move south in large numbers. These movements are known as irruptions. It’s possible that we’re looking at the beginning of an irruption of Snowy Owls in Minnesota. That would mean more owls seen in more locations, with more Snowy Owls possible in the Twin Cities. Irruptions in the past have scattered these birds throughout the state. Good places to look are flat open stretches of land that have some resemblance to the northern Canadian tundra these birds call home. Owls often are seen on ice of the Duluth/Superior harbor. The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is another location where Snowy Owls often are found, even in non-irruption years.

The birds are driven south by hunger caused by shortages of their usual prey – small mammals. Populations of the mammals are governed by weather.

Great Gray Owl is another northern species that can appear south of its usual range in large, sometimes astounding numbers. The latter happened in Minnesota during the winter of 2004-2005. This was the most recent irruption of this species and the largest on record. Over 10,000 Great Gray Owls were reported in Minnesota that winter. Thousands of people, birders and non-birders alike, from Minnesota, many other states, and some foreign countries went north to see these owls. Aitkin County was a particularly good place to find them. I remember seeing a large hay field there that held perhaps three dozen Great Grays one afternoon. The town road bordering one side of the field was lined with parked cars, people sitting on car hoods and in lawn chairs to watch the birds. They looked like the audience for a major local sporting event.

The photo was taken in the winter of 2008 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The bird is a juvenile, distinguished by the black markings on its white feathers. Females also show some black. Mature males are snow white, gorgeous birds not often part of these southern incursions. Territorial dominance is a factor, the older males taking possession of whatever good feeding grounds home territory offers. They don't share. The bird below was responding to three crows that were diving on its, trying to harrass it out of their neighborhood. Note the hooked bill and the large talons. This is a well-equipped hunter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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