The snowy owl is one of the largest and most striking owls on the planet, and though its home is in the Arctic, Western New York frequently plays winter host to these ghost-like raptors.
The birds are part of an "irruption," defined as a large number of birds migrating to an area they aren't usually found, and frequently at a great distance. Our region sees these irruptions almost yearly to some degree, but this year's migration is uncommonly large.
Gerry Rising is a naturalist and "Nature Watch" columnist. "This year, across the Northeast, there must be thousands," he told 2 On Your Side. "These birds are going all the way down into the Middle Atlantic states this year."
Tom McDonald is founder of Snowy Watch, and has been researching these birds for over 25 years. "The weather fronts we've had in November and December this year have been very stiff cold fronts with big-time winds, so some of these birds may have come down a little bit further than they were originally intending to. But the point of it all is, this invasion, this irruption of Snowy Owls, is the largest one we've had in decades."
This year's abundance of Snowies is due to prosperity in the Arctic. Lots of food helped the owl's reproduction rate, and now these young birds are getting pushed out of their territory by the adults.
Beverly Jones, a wildlife vet tech with the Erie County SPCA, recently released a rehabbed Snowy owl. "What we think happened is they had a fantastic summer population of food for these owls in the Eastern part of the Arctic, which allowed the females to have lots of babies," Jones said. "So there's just a huge group now of owls needing to find food, so when that happens, they do have to shift and start coming down South a little bit to find more food."
In the Arctic, Snowies prey mainly on lemmings, a small rodent. While they stay here, they're still looking for native rodents, but these birds are nothing if not adaptable. The area around the Great Lakes provides a veritable buffet for hungry young owls, says McDonald.
"It can take a huge prey base, it's very adaptable, and they take a lot of waterfowl. Their talons are about that long, and they can take flying prey up to the size of geese, Canada geese. They might even grab your neighbor's cat out there. I saw one last week try to get a cat -- lifted the rear end off the ground. But the bottom line is, anything goes for a snowy owl."
The massive irruption of owls has brought a migration of birders, as well. Avian enthusiasts flock from miles around to catch a glimpse of this Arctic traveler. If you're interested in spotting one, there's no better time, as they'll soon be heading back North.
Says Rising, "I think we'll see them right through, we may even get them as late as May, but they'll begin to leave when the weather turns."
McDonald concluded," Snowies are probably the most rugged creature on the planet. I've never seen a bird that's quite as adaptable as the snowy owl."