Snowy owls, true to their name, are white, snowy white. In the winter landscape, these striking birds look like ghosts, hunting for their prey on silent wings.
They make their home in the Canadian Arctic, but some winters they dip down into Minnesota, usually only as far south as Duluth. Still, these massive birds — 2 feet tall with wingspans twice that — cause a stir whenever they’re spotted outside of their range.
And this year, they’ve already been spotted.
The first report of a snowy owl came from Up North in September. In October, the white-on-white birds were seen in the heart of the Twin Cities — in northeast Minneapolis, in Edina, in Richfield.
Does this mean that we might be seeing more of these traffic-stopping birds this winter?
“Short answer is, we don’t know,” said Scott Weidensaul, a Pennsylvania-based birding author and owl specialist.
Weidensaul monitored the snowy owl sightings in 2013, when thousands of the hungry birds descended into Minnesota, as well as dozens of states to the east and west.
During that year, which birders refer to as an “invasion year,” looking for snowy owls became winter sport. People who knew owls only from Harry Potter movies started patrolling rural roads looking for the birds, which favored open farmland. The birds also were seen in the metro area, perching on highway signs, streetlights and suburban rooftops. Those birds nabbed headlines and stole the spotlight in local news broadcasts.
No one is ready to call this another owl invasion. The ones that have been seen so far could disappear, said Weidensaul. Or they could they could signal the beginning of another shout-out owl year.
“Snowy owls are unpredictable,” he said. “At this point, it’s just speculation. We’re waiting to see what happens — and keeping our fingers crossed.”
Snowy owls live on small, mouse-like mammals known as voles. When the vole population climbs, owl couples have lots to eat, so they tend to hatch more chicks.
Every owl needs its own winter hunting ground. Since older owls have dibs on the best grounds, young owls that are grown and on their own are at the back of the line. When there’s a surplus of owls, it tends to be the young ones that head out in search of food.
At least that’s what happened two years ago.
It’ll be a while before we know if the winter of 2015 will be a repeat of 2013.
Photographers, naturalists and, really, anyone who likes birds is hoping it will be. Nothing would warm up a Minnesota winter like snowy owls.
So, keep your eyes peeled.
The owls live and breed on land that is flat and, usually, snow-covered. When they visit us, they often seek something similar. Open farmland is probably best if you want to go looking for them. Be sure to check any elevated perch — poles, posts, hay bales, even a small bump in a field.
Surprisingly, snowy owls aren’t nocturnal, as are most other owl species, so a daylight search is just fine. But, remember, you’re looking for a white bird in the middle of a white field. Look with care. Stay focused.
If you think you see a snowy, report it by calling the Minnesota Ornithologists Union. The organization collects and distributes word of sightings. If you see a snowy owl, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a normal year, the chance of seeing a snowy owl is slight. But this may not be a normal year.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com. Join his conversation about birds at startribune.com/wingnut.