The bulletin went out on eBird and the birders flocked to the sight in southeastern Wisconsin. Some drove for minutes, some for hours. All wanted to get a glimpse — or more — of a snowy owl.
“It’s an unforgettable site,” said Rusty Dewitt of Green Bay. “Seeing the snowy stays with you, but then, if you ever get a chance to see it again, go — you have to go.”
Dewitt had a memorable sighting of a snowy owl in 2016, while on a Christmas Bird Count outing in southeastern Wisconsin. The bird was perched on a Lake Michigan pier.
“Magical, mythical,” she said of the sight.
Dewitt joined a count this year hoping to see the bird again, but no such luck.
The smartphone app eBird is a citizen-science platform birdwatchers use to document where and when they see birds.
The app is like a beacon for birders seeking to view a new species or to see again that “special bird” — and the snowy owl is special.
Other birders in the state have been luckier than Dewitt, and have spotted snowy owls this winter.
“This bird will take your breath away,” said Alex Williams, a birding enthusiast from South Milwaukee. “You know how it is when you see a breathtaking sculpture? Well, seeing a snowy owl is better than that.”
Wintering in Wisconsin
The snowy owl — bubo scandiacus — is the largest owl in North America, weighing as much as 6 pounds. It has snowy-white plumage, bright yellow eyes and a charisma that captures hearts.
The species has a huge range across predominantly Arctic regions, from western Scandinavia through northern Russia to Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. It has also occasionally bred in Iceland and the United Kingdom.
The birds, which often pair for life, breed on the open polar tundra and feed on lemmings and other voles.
In winter, the owls move south, into northern Europe, north Asia and the United States.
Beginning in November 2017, snowy owls were descending on the Great Lakes region in large numbers, leading bird-watchers to cut class, ditch work and abandon household chores to check possible sightings reported on eBird and other networks.
“I admit I missed two shifts,” said Williams, who described seeing the bird as “supernatural,” which might be why Harry Potter’s beloved Hedwig is a snowy owl.
Irruptions of snowy owls are irregular, as the birds are highly nomadic hunters. Sightings this winter are up in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Great Lakes region, as well as parts of the East Coast — but apparently down in the Rockies.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is tracking snowy owls. As of Jan. 7, 226 snowy owls had been spotted in 65 of 72 counties this winter, according to DNR science coordinator Ryan Brady. An eBird map of sightings in Wisconsin shows the most pins in the eastern part of the state.
The current number far exceeds those of 2016 and 2015, but is in line with the 210 seen at the end of 2014 and the 156 in 2013.
Birder Myles Hurburt reported two snowy-owl sightings Jan. 3 — one in Pine Grove and another in the Buena Vista Grasslands.
Cindy Lupin saw a snowy the same day, on the lakefront in Manitowoc. So did Charles Sontag.
Also that day, Michael Kloepping saw a snowy in Appleton near South Quest Drive, Aaron Patterson saw the owl at the Linnwood Water Treatment Plant in Milwaukee, and Williams saw the bird in Markesan.
“What a way to start the new year,” said Williams.
As to the cause of snowy-owl irruptions, the DNR said most experts agree the mass movements are associated with an abundance of prey in the Arctic. When prey is bountiful, the owls raise large families — and the young owls disperse southward in large numbers.
That’s held true this winter in Wisconsin, where the DNR reports, “the irruption continues to be dominated by juvenile birds hatched last summer.”
Reduced and ‘vulnerable’ population
Tempering the excitement over this winter’s irruptions is new evidence the global population of snowy owls has been vastly overestimated — and the species is on the decline.
The population was estimated at 200,000 in 2013, but new estimates put the population at about 28,000 mature birds — 14,000 pairs. The number could be as low as 7,000 pairs.
Native peoples take the birds for food, feathers and claws, as they have for centuries, but scientists don’t think these harvests threaten the overall population.
Electrocution, entanglement in fishing lines and especially vehicle collisions result in more bird deaths.
But the most significant impact on snowy owls is climate change.
Snowies breed in regions were global warming is occurring most quickly and dramatically, and that affects breeding areas and the availability of prey. In December, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the northern Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe.
In 2014, the North American Bird Conservation Initiative listed the snowy owl as one of 33 “common birds in steep decline” — meaning more than half the global population had been lost over the past four decades.
Most recently, in December 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature updated its Red List of Threatened Species and reported on the declining status of the snowy owl.
“Worrying new information from the North American Arctic lists the iconic snowy owl as threatened for the first time,” the IUCN report stated.
“The owl jumps from ‘least concern’ (in 2004) to ‘vulnerable’ (in 2017), with its population … declining by 30-49 percent in three generations. Climate change is among a number of threats to the species, affecting snowmelt, which in turn reduces availability of rodent prey,” the report said.
The IUCN warned of “rapid population declines in North America and probably also in northern Europe. … There remains some uncertainty about the overall rate of decline, and if it proves to be even higher, the species may be eligible for further uplisting to ‘endangered.’”
Satellite tracking the snowies
To address the global decline, the IUCN says the International Snowy Owl Working Group of researchers is studying the species in nine countries and conducting satellite-tracking projects to monitor movements.
In the United States, one organization at the forefront of monitoring snowies is Project SNOWstorm, which was founded in 2013 in the wake of the largest irruption of snowy owls on the East Coast since the 1920s.
Project SNOWstorm has installed solar-powered tracking devices on more than 50 snowy owls in at least 10 states, including Wisconsin, seeking to understand the species’ winter ecology.
Late in 2017, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin — along with the Wisconsin Public Service Foundation, Madison Audubon Society, and Wisconsin Society for Ornithology — began raising money to outfit at least five snowies in the state with transmitters. Each costs about $3,000.
An immature female owl nicknamed Badger was the first to receive one of the transmitters, which was strapped on her near Freedom. Soon enthusiasts can go online to follow her and other Wisconsin snowies.
Rusty Dewitt certainly plan to follow Badger’s adventures online, but she’d rather see the owl through her binoculars.
“Such a sensational bird,” she said.
The AP contributed to this report.
Did you know?
In the early 1960s, groundbreaking research was taking place in Wisconsin with Operation Snowy Owl. The research team in the winter of 1960–61 conducted the first coordinated effort to study a winter irruption of snowy owls, using paint to color-mark the white feathers.
To see a snowy …
To improve chances of seeing a bird in the wild, know the ways of the species. For snowy owls, check low-level perches in open habitats around dawn or dusk from November to March.
Habitat. Snowy owls usually seek out open habitats similar to the Arctic tundra — think coastal beaches and harbors, open grasslands and agricultural fields, wetland complexes, airports and ice-covered water bodies.
Perches. They’ll roost on just about anything, including the ground, haybales, fence posts, telephone poles, breakwalls, muskrat houses, trees and snags, silos and other structures.
Time of day. Snowy owls are diurnal, or active during the day. However, during the winter the birds are most active at dawn and dusk.
On the web
To read more about the snowy owl, go online to projectsnowstorm.owl.
To track Badger and other snowies, visit projectsnowstorm.org/snowstorm-owls-winter-2017-18.
2018: The year of the bird
This year marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, perhaps the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever enacted.
To mark the milestone, National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdLife International and more than 100 other organizations declared 2018 the “Year of the Bird.”
The campaign website allows bird-lovers to sign up to receive newsletters with steps to help birds and the environment.
For example in February, participants are invited to join the Great Back Yard Bird Count and report the tally to help track the health of bird populations.
In March, participants will be invited to use Audubon’s Native Plant Database to learn which plants attract nesting birds and provide sanctuary for migrating birds.
Through 12 months of storytelling, research and conservation efforts, participants in the “Year of the Bird” will examine how the changing environment is driving losses among bird species around the globe — and highlight what we can do to help bring birds back.
On the web
For more about the “Year of the Bird,” go online to birdyourworld.org or search #BirdYourWorld on social media.