If you have ventured into the great outdoors this winter, you may have had the good fortune of seeing a Snowy Owl perched in a tree or flying across the sky. This majestic bird, typically found in the Artic Circle, is moving south across North America and Eurasia in its greatest numbers in decades.
The cause for this unexpected winter migration, known as an irruption, is unknown, but many biologists believe that it is connected to the rise and fall of its prey species’ populations in the Arctic. The lemming is the Snowy Owl’s most common prey, and as its population increases and decreases, the Snowy Owl’s population follows suit. Scientists believe that unusually large fluctuations in the lemming population over the last two years have led to an abundance of Snowy Owls, forcing them to move south in search of new habitat and food sources. This year, Snowy Owls have been spotted throughout the Northeast and Midwest and even as far south as Bermuda. If you visit the Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife preserve, in southern New Jersey, it is almost impossible to not see a Snowy Owl.
The Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus, is one of the most sought after birds in North America, and its arrival in the United States has excited biologists and birders of all levels. It is the largest owl in North America, standing two feet tall with a wingspan of nearly six feet, and weighing on average between three and six pounds. The Snowy Owl is highly diurnal, meaning it is most active during the day. With its strong beak and sharp talons, the Snowy Owl is a skilled hunter, preying on anything from field mice to geese. Adult Snowy Owls can eat up to 1,600 lemmings in a single year.
If you are interested in seeing a Snowy Owl, you can sign up for eBird alerts through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology online at www.ebird.org. This Sunday, January 19th, at 8:30 am, the Lower Merion Conservancy is hosting its Annual Winter Bird Count at the Conservancy Cottage. Join the staff of the Conservancy and Riverbend Environmental Education Center, along with fellow birders, as we visit birding hotspots in the community. We may not see a Snowy Owl but we are sure to see many other beautiful birds that call Lower Merion home for the winter.