Visitors from the north
Snowy owls turning up across Michigan, Wisconsin
IRON MOUNTAIN — Carol Bronzyk got more than she ordered Wednesday while in the drive-through at Jimmy John’s.
A large white bird, hounded by crows, came swooping straight toward her car.
“I screamed, because I thought it was going to crash into my windshield,” the Quinnesec woman said.
Instead, a snowy owl — the bird of “Harry Potter” fame — landed on the hood of her idling vehicle. She was so surprised by the sight, she had to be prompted by a Jimmy John’s employee through the intercom to take a photo.
The owl remained for about five minutes while others took out cell phones for photos as well.
“There was nobody behind me, thank God, because I wasn’t moving,” Bronzyk said.
The bird eventually flew atop Home Depot, where it remained for much of the afternoon.
This is shaping up to be the second year in the past three that the Great Lakes region has enjoyed a major movement of snowy owls southward, said Ryan Brady, a Natural Heritage Conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office in Ashland, Wis.
He’s had 34 snowy owls reported in Wisconsin since the first one was spotted Oct. 20. While not as impressive as the 78 birds that turned up in the state by the same date in 2015, it far exceeds what was seen in 2016, when the first didn’t appear until Nov. 15.
It’s thought this early influx of snowies, as in 2015, might be due to a stellar breeding season this past summer that created lots of juvenile owls now forced to disperse to find areas that offer food and more mild winter conditions than the high arctic.
Snowy owls breed on the tundra, feasting primarily on lemmings and other rodents. Like arctic fox, they take advantage of years when prey is plentiful by producing twice and even three times the number of young, laying as many as 11 eggs in a single nesting season, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
That can result in a mass exodus of young owls southward come fall and early winter. Almost all of the ones photographed so far in Michigan and Wisconsin this year have the heavy barring of first-year snowy owls, Brady said. Only adult males are almost completely white, and even the females don’t have the extensive black markings of the juveniles, Cornell explains.
Snowy owls, unlike most other owls, are daytime hunters so must move south of the arctic circle for winter.
It is the largest by weight of all North American owls, a pound more on average than our familiar great horned owl. The great gray owl, also a northern species but of the boreal forest, is taller but much of that is fluffed-up feathers.
This impressive size, striking plumage and relative rarity this far south means snowy owls draw a crowd when they turn up, especially in urban areas.
But too much attention on these relatively tame owls can cause them harm, Brady warned.
Many of these juveniles arrive after the long journey from Canada in poor shape, thin and needing to feed and recover. Several each year end up with wildlife rehabilitators who try to nurse them back to health, with varying success, Brady said.
These young owls also usually were raised in an area that had few, if any, humans, much less buildings and vehicles. That makes them less than cautious around people and less than savvy about the dangers of traffic. Each year, a number of snowy owls wind up struck by vehicles.
Brady recommends those getting a look at these visitors keeping their distance, stay in their vehicles and try to create as little disruption as possible, so the bird can focus on prey, not people.
“Basically, give it space, be quiet and just enjoy it,” Brady said.
For more information on snowy owls, go to http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/SnowyOwls.html. Citizens can help track the species’ movement through the region by reporting where and when they saw a snowy owl at that same web site.