Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Snowy Owl-Harry Potter's Bird

Photo by John Pogacnik, cropped by me.

"You know, Harry Potter's Owl," was how I described the bird to one of my friends. That is usually the easiest way I have found to describe a Snowy Owl to someone who is not a birder. A lot of people have seen the Harry Potter movies and know exactly what I am talking about when I say "Harry Potter's Owl".

And I saw one, in all its niveous beauty, this past weekend. (How's that for a thesarus word? :) )

A few of my friends and I went on a Cleveland pelagic trip on Lake Erie. We went out on the lake, looking for birds, hoping for jaegers and such. Someone spotted this snowy owl along one of the breakwalls, near the airport. The boat came fairly close, and my friend, John Pogacnik, shot a few pics of the gorgeous beast. This is a juvenile owl. One can tell a juvenile owl from an adult by all the dark barring on its feathers. An older owl will not have as much.

The one feature I love best about snowy owls? Their eyes. Those deep, piercing amber eyes.

They are such stunning birds, with an almost ghost-like appearance as they float silently along the horizon. To see one also makes me sad. Most Snowy Owls that visit Indiana and Ohio in the winter, do not make it. Many times these owls get hit by cars and trucks as they are gliding across the highway, looking for a meal. Snowy Owls glide very low along the ground, as they search for food, and this puts them right in the path of a vehicle.

So why do Snowy Owls come to Indiana in the wintertime, you may ask? There normal range is in the arctic tundra, throughout Canada and the Northern United States. To be in Indiana is not a common occurrence. This year we have had quite a few reports of Snowy Owls. Brad Bumgardner has created a map with a lot of the Snowy Owl sightings. One was recently seen on Sunday along I-70, near Richmond. Today, the Indiana Bird listserv reports one in Allen County near US 30. The answer is they are looking for food. Snowy Owls love to snack on lemmings.

Lemmings are cyclic in nature. Lemming populations will increase year after year and the predators, such as owls and fox will increase along with them. Eventually, they will hit a threshold and the predators will apply too much pressure on the lemming population. The lemming population will crash and the abundant predators will be forced to look for food elsewhere. The Snowy Owl will fly southward looking for other food. These cycles seem to occur about every four years.

It has been reported that a combination of a good breeding season, producing many juvenile owls, and a possible crash in the lemming population up north may force many Snowy Owls to the south. Snowy Owls, especially juveniles, should be viewed fairly often this winter. Keep your eye out when you are near an open field this season. You may be lucky enough to encounter one of these beautiful winter visitors.


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