As people prepare for holiday visitors, those who love birds make time to search outside for visitors from the Arctic—snowy owls. Not your typical backyard birds attracted to feeders full of sunflower seeds or suet cakes, snowy owls are more likely to be found in open landscapes resembling their coastal tundra habitats above the Arctic Circle. Usually, a few snowy owls appear every year, but birders hope this winter brings another irruption—a sudden increase of these migrants across the state if many chicks born last summer survived to make their first migration.
When they are searching over plowed fields, these camouflaged birds look like a bump on the snow-covered ground. Easier to spot are the owls perched atop a telephone pole along the roadside. Birders may see owls sitting on beaches, on rocks along river banks, or on the ice-covered Saginaw Bay.
Snowy owl adult males appear almost completely white while adult females show dark bars across the breast and wings. Like other owls and hawks, the females are larger than the males. Juveniles are heavily marked with bars and spotting. All ages show their big yellow eyes, rounded head, and feather-covered legs. Long bristles, which nearly cover the black bill, help to warm the cold air before it enters an owl’s lungs.
Information previously known about these nomadic migrants is being updated with new data acquired from high-tech tracking devices. During the historic irruption of snowy owls in the winter months of 2013 and 2014, a multi-state study called Project Snowstorm was initiated by co-founder Scott Weidensaul, scientists, and 12 partner organizations, including Michigan’s Whitefish Point Bird Observatory. Several owls found at airports needed to be relocated. After safely catching an owl, scientists chose only healthy birds for tagging, attaching a solar-powered GPS transmitter. The transmitter sends data over cellular phone networks when the bird flies within range of cell towers. Transmitters weigh only 40 grams and attach with a lightweight backpack harness over the wings, not harming or hindering the bird’s normal flight activity.
Tracking studies reveal that some birds stay within a few square miles for months while others extensively wander over 150 miles in a few days. Between February and April, the snowy visitors head back north to their summer Arctic home.
Night hunters. Most snowy owls here hunt nocturnally, capturing mice, voles, or rabbits on land. Some fly out over the Great Lakes to hunt ducks or gulls floating in the constantly shifting open water areas.
Chick clutches. During the long summer breeding season, snowy owls become diurnal hunters because the sun never completely sets below the horizon at the top of the Earth. Lemmings comprise their main diet. When lemmings are abundant, clutches of five to 10 owl chicks hatch while only four to seven chicks are born in leaner years.
Tracking Chippewa. A third-year female was named “Chippewa” after she was trapped February 8, 2015, in the Upper Peninsula’s Chippewa County. Chippewa spent most of her time along the frozen entry channel of the St. Marys River west of Sault Ste. Marie. The last tracking transmission from Chippewa occurred on May 1. She is presumed to have flown north.
Project Snowstorm. Another adult female was trapped at MBS International Airport on February 11, 2015, by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The owl was relocated to farmlands near Schoolcraft in Southern Michigan and named “Prairie Ronde” after the township. After staying in that vicinity for two weeks, Prairie Ronde flew southeast to Indiana and Ohio. On March 5, her last transmission came from near Fayette, Ohio. For more information, check www.projectsnowstorm.org.
Snowy owls in the Great Lakes Bay Region. Check local bird sightings at www.saginawbaybirding.org.