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Return of the Snowy Owls: How to spot our winter visitors 

The snowy owl returns for winter.

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Reports of snowy owl (SNOL) sightings have been coming in by the hundreds from all over the Northwest, Midwest and East Coast. My pal from the old OMSI days, Bart Butterfield, who is now in charge of the GSI Division of Idaho Fish and Game, sent me an email the other day with an attached map of all the SNOL sightings in the U.S. and Canada.

But the first report I received came from Sisters photographer and Kestrel volunteer, Dick Tipton, last week. He found that beautiful female at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge feasting on rodents.

Snowy owls are the largest of our owls, both in weight and size. The great gray owl of our boreal forests is big, but it weighs only a fraction of our local great horned owl, and compared to the SNOL, they're both lightweights.

The big owls of the North have an impressive grocery list; the smallest prey being lemmings (mixed with insects) and mice, and the largest, arctic fox cubs, along with assorted snowshoe hares, grouse, and ptarmigan, and a goose or two when opportunity shows itself.

The marching-to-the-sea story about lemmings is familiar to anyone interested in animal behavior, and may be true to some degree, but when there are too many rodents in a given habitat, it's usually disease that brings their populations back to "normal." The sudden appearance of tularemia - the deadly diseases that knocks down our burgeoning jackrabbit, mice and vole populations - is an example.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not the predator that controls the prey, but really the other way around. In the arctic, when lemmings, hares and ptarmigan are in high numbers, snowy owls are living high on the hog. But when the prey-based population crashes, the only way the snowys can survive is to leave home and head for what may be better feeding grounds, which is south.

I was very fortunate to witness the last huge movement of snowys back in 1966. I was the naturalist for OMSI and also having fun writing for the Oregonian's magazine section. When the sudden appearance of snowys took place that winter, I wrote a story about it and included a mail-back notice for anyone who wanted to report a snowy sighting. The response was overwhelming.

I received hundreds of postcards from people all over the state, including - believe it or not - one from a woman who was on her way to Hawaii on a ship off the coast of the California who had a snowy land on the deck!

I hung out with Dr. Matt Maberry, the Oregon Zoo's veterinarian, in those days. He had his own personal high-performance airplane, a low-wing, single-engine Mooney. When I told Matt about all the snowy owl reports I'd received, he suggested we go through the most likely ones and then take his Mooney and tour the state, checking on each owl report.

Except for a very few, all were - or did - starve to death. They unfortunately ended up in habitat unfamiliar to them without the rodents or other prey to live on. In the time Matt and I spent touring the state, I personally handled over 250 owls, most of them dead.

One owl made it down by Astoria feeding on mice and voles in the grassy sand dunes along the South Jetty. Another caused a great deal of excitement for motorists driving the freeway between Salem and Albany; it was a huge female successfully hunting the fields alongside the freeway. We also found one surviving in the tundra-like sand and bunchgrass landscape near Arlington on the Columbia River, and another hunting in the sand dunes along the south jetty of Newport.

Snowy owls are diurnal, not nocturnal, they move about from sun-up to sundown. If you see what appears to be an oversized white football sitting in the middle of a field, it's probably a snowy. In flight, they move fast with a strong wing-beat close to the ground.

If you see a big white bird flying by in the dark, however, it is in all probability a barn owl. They are nocturnal and very light beneath the wings, or it could be a great horned owl. In daylight, there is no other bird like the snowy, other than a rare albino raptor.

If you do have a sighting of what you really believe is a snowy, please take a moment and go to the Oregon Birder's On Line (OBOL) website and report your observation. Or, if you find it on the Land Trust's Camp Polk Preserve, in the backyard of the La Pine High School, or out near Grandview or Horse Ridge, please email or call me immediately! Thanks.


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