Snowy Owl Invasion Puzzles Scientists, Dazzles Enthusiasts

By Mark Leberfinger, Staff Writer
January 8, 2014; 5:16 AM ET
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Snowy owls have been spotted in the Northeast U.S., all the way down to South Carolina since early December.

Scientists aren't sure why the owls, who spent much of their lives around the Arctic Circle, have arrived in such large numbers.

"It's a great opportunity to see a magnificent animal," Kevin McGowan of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., said.

The owls, the largest in North America, do make forays into the Northeast but this year is different, McGowan said.

"Here in central New York, there were 10 sightings in 10 days," he said. "This is just not the normal way of things."

Snowy owls normally hunt for food at night by hovering in the area or watching from their perches.

There are two conceivable possibilities for the irruption, or rapid and irregular, increase of owls.

"One is that they have a very high success rate in breeding this year over last year. The parents tend to jostle them out of the nest," McGowan said. "The opposite possibility is that the normal food sources are disrupted and they have to travel farther south to find their food.

"Either way, there are a lot more of them. They're just impressive. It's really cool."

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It's unclear whether climate change is playing a role in this year's owl display.

"We just don't know," McGowan said. "It is a rather fragile ecosystem. They are adapted to spend the winter at the North Pole." Facebook fan Ed McCormick took this photo of a snowy owl on a roof in Belmar, N.J., on Jan. 4, 2014.

Snowy owls normally spend the winter on the pack ice and hang around the holes, waiting to a seabird meal. They also look for lemmings in the snow.

If the ice was more open, there may be more seabirds and hunting is more efficient, McGowan said. It could also mean the food source is more spread out and the owls are unable to find enough to eat.

More snow in the region may mean the lemmings are harder to find.

Two things are clear: There is less ice and more stormy conditions in the Hudson Strait between Baffin Island and the northern coast of Quebec, Expert Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said.

"The trend has been for less ice in the Hudson Strait, especially since the 1990s," Anderson said.

Stormier conditions make sense for the owls' movement, Anderson said.

"It has been warmer. That means more moisture is available. Storms can get more extreme."

People can post snowy owl sightings to Cornell's eBird website or to the ongoing Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

This map from Cornell's eBird website shows the reported sightings of snowy owls in the eastern and southern U.S. since the beginning of December.


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