Boreal Bird Blog
Observations and updates from our Senior Scientist, Dr. Jeff Wells, and the BSI science team

Snowy Owl Sightings Soar

January 27, 2012 | Dr. Jeff Wells

One of North America’s most striking yet enigmatic birds, the Snowy Owl, has been anything but elusive so far this winter in many places around the United States, as reported by the New York Times and hundreds of birders around the nation.

Snowy Owl
Credit: Government of Quebec (via Wikimedia Commons)

It spends its summers way up in the far reaches of the arctic, hunting lemmings and other small mammals to feed its hatching young. Once the coolness of fall begins sweeping through the arctic, it migrates further south down into the boreal forest of Canada and the northern reaches of the United States to settle in for the winter. Despite this, it still remains difficult to find for many birders even when in the midst of its common range.

If not for the speckling of darker markings across its torso, wings, and head, it would be nearly impossible to see in the snow. Even with the help of its markings it, like many owls, will remain perched silently for hours on end. It’s wide geographical distribution often means a large expanse of habitat might only contain a few Snowy Owls, if any.

Snowy Owl range
Borrowed from:

However, its striking beauty and the fact that it is diurnal (active during the day) make it a special target for many birders. Those of you who saw The Big Year will recall this bird in particular gave Kenny Bostick (played by Owen Wilson) fits while trying to build his list. That’s why when birders come upon their first Snowy Owl experience, it’s usually a special one.

And for those of you who have yet to see one, this just might be your year. Snowy Owl sightings have been sprouting up almost everywhere, it seems. As the Times article notes, Snowy Owls spottings are being reported by the dozens in places like Kansas and Missouri, where typical years will only produce a few. After a reportedly good breeding season this past summer, this irruptive year is yielding unexpected presents for many well after the holiday season has ended.

One even showed up in Hawaii—the first known spotting—but was unfortunately shot at the airport by officials who worried it might interfere with landings and takeoffs.

Here in Maine there have been a number of them sighted across the state, including one very regular bird that is apparently still at Nubble Light in York. Some spots in Washington State north of Seattle are well known places to find Snowy Owls, as the Boreal Songbird Initiative crew found out in 2006.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently uploaded this video of Snowy Owls that was filmed in the same area:

So if you have the chance to get outside, keep a close lookout for a pleasant surprise. It might be your best chance at catching a glimpse of this enchanting species.


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