An “Irruption” of Snowy Owls


Look out, Northeast — already there have been many more sightings of snowy owls this season, and much further south than expected.

An irruption, in birding, is when a species of bird moves into an area where it doesn’t normally winter. Snowies have been spotted as far south as North Carolina this year, in what’s being considered one of the most dramatic snowy irruptions witnessed in recent years. This wintering season, one was even spotted in Bermuda — certainly a warm weather destination far from the upper latitudes where they typically make their home.

While some species of birds winter in unorthodox areas because of a lack of food in their normal wintering grounds, many believe these snowies are moving south this winter for another reason. It might suggest that prey was abundant this summer in the eastern Arctic, leading to excellent breeding conditions. Some biologists believe that after an initial boom in the lemming population ended, high numbers of these young owls took flight to find resources elsewhere.

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There have been numerous snowy owl sightings at national wildlife refuges. This photo was taken at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge by Don Freiday.

Snowies like open areas, like shorelines and open fields, and unlike most owls, are diurnal — that is, they’re active both in the day and night. That said, these owls still hunt at night and remain relatively sedentary during daylight. But as awesome (in the original sense of the word) as seeing one of these birds is, take care not to disturb or get to close to them! As a migratory bird, snowies are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The recent interest in snowy owls is perhaps thanks to the popular “Harry Potter” franchise of books and movies. In the films, the protagonist’s pet owl is played by the male snowy owl Gizmo.

These Arctic nomads are capable of crisscrossing continents in search of abundant prey, sometimes flying more than 600 miles each summer. They can cross oceans or even hunt on ice flows. So, I hope you have the good fortune to spot a snowy owl this winter, and I hope that I have the good fortune to cross paths with one in the fields of Massachusetts this holiday season.


Another snowy owl perched in Edwin B. Forysthe National Wildlife Refuge. Photo via Stan Lupo.

This post originally appeared in Conserving the Nature of the Northeast.