Rare snowy owl sightings on the rise this year

KEENE – The Northeast and Great Lakes states are seeing a large influx of Arctic snowy owls.

The birds started arriving from the north in mid-November and have been seen with regularity for weeks.

The birds prefer wind open spaces; therefore, most of them are being seen in agricultural areas and places such as airports.

“They were hatched and lived their lives, way, way up above the treeline, so they hardly ever see trees,” said Kevin McGowan, a biologist at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. “They’re adapted hunting in open spaces. Hunting for open spaces, that’s what feels best for them. So they see something like an airport, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that looks like home.'”

That means there aren’t too many showing up in the forested Adirondack Mountains. However, in recent weeks there were snowy owl sightings in Lake Placid and Keene. The sightings likely consisted of just two birds total.

Unfortunately for the Keene bird, it was hit by a motor vehicle and later died. Wendy Hall of the Adirondack Wildlife Center and Rehabilitation Center in Wilmington treated the bird late last week but was unable to save it.

She said the bird got in trouble because it was weak and emaciated and had been approached by people numerous times, causing it to fly into the roadway.

However, many of the birds migrating south to winter in the Northeast aren’t unhealthy.

Bird experts are hypothesizing that snowy owls left the Arctic winter and headed south for a couple of reasons. One, there may be a shortage of lemmings – small rodents – for them to eat in their home ranges. They also had a successful reproductive season this past summer.

“There are always a few that come down about as far south as southern Canada – a couple – but this year is really quite remarkable,” McGowan said. “There are a whole lot of birds out there.”

McGowan speculated that this is the most amount of snowy owls flying this far south in decades; however, he said there isn’t any data to back that up.

This winter, he may get the data he needs as the birds are being tracked by ebird.org, a website set up by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. It tracks the birds by allowing members of the public to submit their sightings. The data will give scientists a baseline to compare to future years.

One person who has seen a snowy owl recently is Brian McAllister, Paul Smith’s College VIC natural history program coordinator.

“I drove up to Malone the other day and there was one sitting right at the airport,” he said.

The snowy owls are expected to remain in the Northeast until late February.

Experts believe that more snowy owls could potentially arrive in the coming weeks.