“For many of us, the term snow birds conjures up images of retired loved ones heading south to escape the cold and dreary Midwestern winters. For bird watchers, snow birds take on a whole different meaning,” reports Chris Fox, Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District coordinator.
The most common of those winter birds is the dark-eyed junco (formerly known as the slate-colored junco). This is the little dark gray bird frequently seen on the ground beneath feeders. “They often arrive here about the time of our first snowfall. When they fly, you will often see a flash of bright white along the outer tail feathers,” he says.
Less common in southeastern Indiana, but also bearing the ‘snow’ moniker, is the snow bunting. These birds have mostly white plumage and are often mixed in with flocks of horned larks. In flight, a flock of snow buntings can look like a blowing snowstorm.
The least common and most prized sighting of a snow bird among birders south of the Great Lakes is the snowy owl. This winter has seen an invasion of these birds in the United States, mostly around the Great Lakes or Northeast. Indiana has seen a number of ‘snowies’ this year as well, mostly in the northern counties, though one was seen as far south as the Evansville airport.
On Jan. 6, a snowy owl was reported in a soybean field in Decatur County near Greensburg. The owl has been there for nearly two weeks and has been seen by many birders and nonbirders from all over the Tristate area, Fox reveals. At times, there have been over 10 cars parked along the edge of the county road with cameras and spotting scopes following the bird’s every move (though for the most part, the owl just sits there sleeping, preening and wondering what all the fuss is about).
It appeared to be a young, immature owl and possibly a female based on the dark barring on the wings and chest. So what is all the fuss about? “Besides being a beautiful bird, it is also quite rare in this part of the state .... In fact, it has been reported that it has been 60 years since the last snowy owl was seen in Decatur County.”
So how long will this owl stay in Greensburg? Good question that only time will tell. Once an owl finds a suitable wintering area, it will generally stay there until it is time to return north to the breeding grounds. In fact, snowies often defend their winter territories fiercely and have been known to return to the same area year after year. “So if you haven’t had a chance to get out and see this regal, long distant migrant, don’t delay. It may be decades before we are fortunate enough to have another one of these snow birds call Greensburg home for the winter.”
Fox stresses, “When viewing or photographing, please remember that these birds should not be approached too closely. Snowy owls are large and can be enjoyed and photographed from a safe distance. Many of these birds are probably food-stressed and need to hunt to maintain their strength. Close approach by birders or photographers could make this much harder for them. Many of these birds are also young and immature and still learning how to hunt effectively. Please view these owls from a safe distance and help others to understand how to act appropriately.”
This majestic owl is one of the few birds that can even get nonbirders to come out and brave the elements for a look. It is the largest of the North American owls, weighing about 4 pounds and having a wingspan of about 4 to 5 feet. Unlike most owls, they are diurnal, which means they may be seen hunting at all hours of the day, either in the Arctic during the continuous daylight or on their wintering grounds.
They also spend a lot of time on the ground, even nesting there. Whether on the tundra or in the Midwest, snowy owls prefer treeless places and wide-open spaces, often sitting in bare corn fields, beaches or even airports.
Scientists are not sure exactly what is driving the influx of snowies this year. These invasions are thought to occur because of variations in cyclical prey and predator populations in the Arctic. While prey/food scarcity is often cited as a driving force to the snowy owl southern migration, many biologists are now suggesting that a highly productive breeding season this past summer in the Arctic (due to an abundance of lemmings, the snowies’ primary food source in the summer) may be the reason for the large numbers of these owls throughout the U.S., as evident by the high proportion of immature (first-winter) birds.
Another possible factor is the ever changing climate in the Arctic. With significant losses in sea ice, major changes in snowfall and rising temperatures, these owls are facing changes to their environment and must adapt.