How to Find Snowy Owls

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W.W.W.W.H. Series – Snowy Owls

Who (identification)

Very Large Owl     Small Rounded Head     No Ear Tufts     Yellow Eyes     Long, Rounded Wings     Short Tail     Dark Bill     Heavily Feathered – including Legs, Feet    

  • Plumage: White with varying degrees (depending on age, gender) of dark barring on body and wing areas (Snowy Owls have white face regardless of age, gender). Male Snowy Owls get whiter with age; an older male is pure white, while a younger male will feature faint markings. Females are more heavily marked than males but like males, they will lose some of the barring with age (but never to the same extent). Immature females are the most extensively barred.
  • Size: Females are slightly larger than males, but size is not a good measure of identification.
  • Call: Snowy Owls on wintering grounds don’t often vocalize, especially if there are no other Snowy Owls nearby.

What (behavior)

Like most wild animals much of a Snowy Owl’s life (average lifespan is approximately 20 years) is devoted to obtaining food and breeding.

  • Food: Snowy Owls are adept hunters, they often track from a perch or the ground, swiftly take off – staying low, pluck prey from ground with talons (in the case of mammals) or out of midair (in the case of birds), then carry prey to new perch and swallow hole (if small enough). On breeding grounds Snowy Owl primarily feed on lemmings, a small rodent of the arctic tundra. They’ll also eat other rodents, waterfowl and birds like ptarmigan (a species of tundra grouse). When Snowy Owls are most visible to birdwatchers (during winter migration) they will continue to hunt rodents like squirrels, mice, and rabbits, in addition to waterfowl like ducks and geese. Snowy Owls are opportunistic hunters, especially in winter and will at times eat fish and carrion (flesh of an already dead animal). 
  • Breeding
    • Courtship: Male slowly rises into the air, then slowly flies down to a grounded female, lands – raises wings – struts around. Male oftentimes will present female with object (usually dead prey).
    • Breeding: Male establishes territory in early spring with hoot call, chooses site for ground style nest. Female creates nest by scraping a hole on raised area of the tundra floor. Fe male incubates the eggs, while male watches for predators and provides food. Snowy Owls are most susceptible to predation while breeding, both parents will aggressively defend the nest. Clutch size is very dependent on food supply (especially lemming population), 7 to 18 in a good year, 3 to 5 in an inadequate year.  Incubation lasts a little over one month, with hatching 2 days apart. Fledging occurs in 2 to 3 months. Snowy Owls will sometimes reuse nest.

Where (range, habitat)

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  • Range: Snowy Owls breed in arctic regions, the only US state they breed in is Alaska. In winter varying amounts of Snowy Owls migrate south – primarily to Canada but also to certain regions (Great Lake, New England) in the northern United States. Some years Snowy Owls migrate south in unusually high numbers – this is referred to as an “irruption” and isn’t common. When this mass movement does occur, Snowy Owls can pop up in all 50 states, though most will remain in the northern half of the country.
  • Habitat: Large open spaces, with little to no trees.
    • Breeding occurs in the harsh, treeless arctic tundra, specific location may be based on lemming population.
    • During winter migration they favor coastlines (beaches), airports, and open farmland. Within these locations check common perching and roosting sites like: the ground, jetties (aka breakwaters), sand dunes, fenceposts, light posts, telephones posts, picnic tables, and even buildings.
  • Tip: Check for pellets – a large cache of them may reveal a Snowy Owl roosting location.

When (Migration, Breeding, Time of Day)

Migration: Migratory Snowy Owls begin to arrive on wintering grounds in late November and into December (though occasionally Snowy Owls are spotted in the U.S. in late October). Snowy Owls usually stay on wintering grounds until March/Early April, then make their flight north back to arctic tundra.

Breeding: Snowy Owls begin breeding in May, with breeding activities continuing through summer.

Time of Day: Unlike most owls, Snowy Owls are active during the day. On wintering grounds Snowy Owls may become most visible right before sunset (dusk), which appears to be a preferred time to hunt. Though any daylight time offers an opportunity – you may need to do a lot of scanning, since Snowy Owls tend to spend a lot of time sitting in one spot.

Tip: If possible, a Snowy Owl search should be conducted when the ground isn’t covered in snow, they can rather difficult to spot (for obvious reasons) on a white background.

                                                                            Snowy Owl is white spot in middle of photo, imagine how difficult it would be to spot if ground were covered in snow

                                                                            Snowy Owl is white spot in middle of photo, imagine how difficult it would be to spot if ground were covered in snow

How to find Snowy Owls (summary)

  • Very large, heavily feathered owl with distinctive yellow eyes.
  • Snowy Owls are white with varying degrees (depending on age, gender) of dark barring on body and wing areas. Immature Owls are more heavily barred than Adult Owls. Females are more heavily barred than males.
  • Every year some Snowy Owls migrate south from arctic tundra breeding grounds to winter in Canada and the northern United States. They usually arrive in November and December and stay through March or April.
  • Occasionally unusually high numbers of Snowy Owls migrate south for winter, this phenomenon is referred to as irruption. It is during irruptive years that Snowy Owls are most abundant in the contingent United States and are more likely to appear regions outside of the northern states.
  • Snowy Owls favor large, open habitat with very few trees. They often winter on or near coastlines (beaches), marshes, airports, and open farmland. Within these locations, check for Snowy Owls perching or roosting on: jetties (aka breakwaters), sand dunes, fenceposts, light posts, telephones posts, picnic tables, and even buildings.
  • Finding a Snowy Owl usually requires a lot of scanning because they often sit in one spot for long periods of time.
  • Discovering a large cache of owl pellets may reveal a Snowy Owl roosting location.
  • On wintering grounds Snowy Owls may become most visible right before sunset (dusk), which appears to be a preferred time to hunt.
  • Snowy Owls primarily eat small rodents, mammals, and birds – especially waterfowl. In the arctic they mostly hunt lemming and ptarmigan, while wintering mostly they hunt squirrel, rabbit, mice, duck, and geese. Though they are always opportunistic.
  • If possible, a Snowy Owl search should be conducted when the ground isn’t covered in snow, they can rather difficult to spot (for obvious reasons) on a white background.
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