Wednesday, December 28, 2011

An Irruption of Owls

This story from Charley Burwick of GOAS* and Master Naturalists fame.

Click to enlarge- Greg Swick, GOAS
“Irruption,” yech! - sounds like something you would hear from your doctor.  However, in the birder’s world that is a word that really grabs attention.  An irruption, in the avian world, specifically means some bird, or group of bird species from the tundra, or northern boreal forest moving much farther south than the norm during the winter months.  While it includes many songbird species, the one that really grabs our attention and excitement is when raptors, and more to the point owls, are the ones coming far into the lower 48 states. 

A few years ago, the Great Gray Owls, and Northern Hawk Owls came flowing south into the lower 48 northern tier of states.  Both of these species can be seen in Minnesota from time to time, but this particular year, they were down in huge numbers.  The numbers were much, much higher than ever recorded, or noted in history.  On a visit to Minnesota during this event, my friends and I saw a few of the Hawk Owls (hence my license plate HWK-OWL), and on one day spotted over 70 Great Gray Owls.  Because these birds are not typically around humans, they have no fear of us.  You can stand within just a few yards of them, and they pretty much ignore you.  We observed one, just a few feet from us, fly from a stump, and dive into the deep snow, and come up with a rodent to eat.  What an exhilarating experience.

What caused this irruption?  It is believed there had been an explosive number in the population of rodents, and consequently, a very successful fledging rate of Great Gray Owls.  The sad part of this event is that many of the Great Gray Owls, which were mostly immature birds, starved, and a significant number ended up being road kill.  Once again, not being around metal animals, they would just sit in the middle of a road, and watch a vehicle as it would run them over.  In response, special teams organized to catch and relocate the birds.  To what level of success, we don’t know.

Now, this year, we are experiencing another irruption of owls.  Only this year the species is the Snowy Owl.  It is not unusual for a Snowy Owl or two, to show up in the very northern counties of Missouri during the winter months.  One may stick around in one area long enough for one of us crazy people to make a run to the north to spot one.  I have been so fortunate twice in past years.  However, this year, we are experiencing, once again, an irruption of numbers of a historical magnitude.  At first, two, and then three Snowy Owls were hanging around Smithville Lake, just north of Kansas City.  I had to make the run to see this owl species once again.  They really are a magnificent bird to see, and it is not just the same as viewing them on TV, or a picture on a calendar.  Fortunately, my friends and I spotted three that cool morning.  Remarkable- I never, in my wildest dreams, ever expected to see three Snowy Owls in one morning within a mile of each other in our state.

The story for this year is not over yet.  Just this past week, five Snowy Owls were spotted around Smithville Lake and another one was spotted in Columbia, next to a Holiday Inn, along I 70.  On at least two Christmas Bird Counts, a Snowy Owl was noted on the counts, including one at the Squaw Creek refuge, northwest of St. Joseph.  Yet, the numbers are still going up, as at least another 6-8 have been noted across other northern counties in the state this past week.  Several have been reported in Kansas, from Topeka, to Wichita, and Hutchinson area, and as far south as Oklahoma, northwest of Tulsa.

The next chapter is already being played out.  Several Snowy Owls in the state have been reported found dead, thought to be from starvation.  And, yes, the metal monster has already harvested a few.  As we can note, the numbers are still increasing every day.  When will the numbers slow down?  Who knows?  What has caused this irruption?  Right now, who knows?  The major tool being used to track this activity is eBird (http://ebird.org/content/ebird), a citizen science reporting system sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and National Audubon Society.  Take a look at the eBird web page; learn more about the Snowy Owl, and what is going on during this irruption.  eBird is an outstanding tool, not just for Snowy Owls, but all birds, even the ones in your backyard.  Watch out, you may get hooked.

*GOAS- Greater Ozarks Audubon Society

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