If you love Snowy Owls, northwest Indiana is the place to be right now. Folks in other parts of the state are just finally getting a taste of what we’ve been experiencing for the past month or so. It’s simply the largest incursion of Snowy Owls into the state that we have ever witnessed. That alone is a bold statement. Is it possible that previous invasions were even greater, but our instant communication and social media allow sightings to really spread better than they would have 20 years ago? Yes, possible, but still, most sightings would have been heard about, even if months late.
As of this writing 50 (Edit: 52 as of 12/24) Snowy Owls have been logged in the state. The map below shows where the sightings have occurred. This means that at least 50 Snowy Owls have traveled the thousands of miles to search out food in Indiana. These sightings have been cross referenced with other nearby sightings and are scrutinized with them closely. When possible sex and age are noted so that repeat birds are not logged as new birds. Some high claims and high counts by other states may not have this certainty.
Not only are bird enthusiasts and the general public getting a once in a lifetime experience by seeing so many of these magnificent owls, but researchers stand to gain a wealth of information. We are learning now that areas of the high arctic, particularly northern Quebec had an outstanding year in terms of Snowy Owl prey. Lemmings were stock piled at nesting sites and the owls responded by laying many eggs and successfully fledging them all. Now that many young owls are here, owl banders are switching from night shift banding to day shift to attempt to band and study these great white ghosts from the north.
Project SNOWstorm, as it’s being called, has multiple facets that will seek to capitalize on this massive event to generate important data about these birds. This is being done via banding, GPS telemetry, specimens, and a photo database. Some surprising data already being collected this year shows that many of these Snowy Owls are not starving or emaciated, as is generally thought when so many are driven from the far north. The fact that so many are immature, with few adults tells us that the irruption is not likely food related, or we would be seeing more adults coming down too. Annick Gionet Rollick, from The Owl Foundation is reporting that only one of six birds coming in is emaciated. The others are in good shape (aside from vehicle collisions). That’s good news to hear for these Snowy Owls. Perhaps we’ll see a return spring flight then?
That’s not to say that these owls don’t have their problems. Snowy Owls are well known to being susceptible to aspergillus. Their bodies just aren’t exposed to this in the colder climates. Insect parasites, such as lice, can infest a bird and make life more difficult for them. Look closely at the photo below. Those dark specks are lice on an injured Snowy Owl that made it’s way to Dr. McAfee’s office in Valpo last week.
Human threats are the most serious and one source of stress for these magnificent birds that we can do something about. Getting out and approaching a wild Snowy Owl is just an all around bad idea. If the owl has to move or fly away from you, then you are too close. This is compounded at sites where many people are visiting an owl. What is perceived as a one time movement may be repeated several times a day. There are great photographers taking amazing pictures with giant lenses that look more like WWII guns than cameras, then there are less then ethical photographers that will move ever closer to try to get a better picture. Even worse are stories of mice being used for a picture. Birders should have no hesitation to tell someone if they are too close or to call out individuals giving other birders and photographers a bad name (like a certain red-haired IL photographer driving the crossover SUV bearing the license plate 5518). They may not be starving, but certainly don’t need the extra stress for no good reason.
So certainly enjoy these sightings. Go see a Snowy Owl or two. Take your friends out to see them for Christmas. But do so respectfully and do report your Snowy Owl sightings if you happen to see one. Ebird.com is a great place to submit your own Snowy Owl reports.