Unexpected Winter Visitors

Have you seen a recent visitor from the North Pole? No, I’m not talking about Santa. I’m talking about snowy owls, who may be visiting an area near you.

Snowy owls are large white owls with brown or black flecks and bright yellow eyes. They like to stand or sit on the ground, usually on a little rise. But they will sometimes perch on a pole, building or rocky outcrop to get a better view while hunting. Unlike many owls, snowy owls are active during the day. Of course, in the summer they have no choice but to be active during the long arctic days. Snowy owls spend their summers nesting in the Arctic Circle, feasting on lemmings, voles, ptarmigans and hares. They raise their young in remote, windswept areas, and the males will defend a huge territory. In the fall, young owls will hunt for themselves, and as winter approaches, they’ll all migrate south. However, this is where things get tricky!

Typically in the winter, snowy owls can be found throughout Canada, Alaska and New England. However, the owls travel alone and their specific migration route can vary year-to-year, so their winter home can be difficult to predict. Snowy owls prefer open habitat like plains and tundra, but you can also find them in cornfields, which resemble habitats in their home range. They have also been seen in open areas at airports and beaches! Even in places where snowy owls are expected, it’s hard to predict exactly where one will pop up.

A white snowy owl sits atop a wooden fence post.
Photo by Lisa Salehpour, 2020

Snowy owls appear in Ohio most years, although Ohio isn’t in the snowy owl’s official winter range. You may have heard that in the past few weeks we’ve had a handful of snowy owls spending time in Ohio. Most have been near Lake Erie or in central Ohio, but there was one in Butler County very recently (photographed above). So why are these arctic owls coming this far south?

One reason may be that there are a large number of young owls. Larger population years tend to see the owls travel farther south. Another factor is the availability of territory. Young owls especially may have trouble finding suitable territory that hasn’t already been claimed by adults, thus sending them our way. If their summer food source was particularly plentiful, there will be more young owls and adults on the move in the winter, and this can lead to an owl irruption. An irruption is when birds are found in relatively large numbers outside of their usual range. We may not have an irruption year on our hands, but keep your eyes peeled! You never know just where a snowy owl may visit. During a mega irruption, snowy owls have even been recorded in Florida!

If you do know the location of a snowy owl, make sure to be on your best birding behavior. Birds in migration are under some stress, plus these owls love their isolation. You may even be the first human it has encountered. Keep a good distance from the owl and try not to disturb it. If the owl starts watching you or changes its posture, you know you need to give it more space. The best way to thank a snowy owl for visiting is to allow it to go about its business in peace.

Lisa Salehpour
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods