It’s Been A Snowy Winter: A Record Invasion of Snowy Owls

By Jim White, Associate Director, Land and Biodiversity

By now most of you must have heard of, and maybe even experienced, the incredible natural phenomenon that is occurring this winter:  the record-setting numbers of Snowy Owls wintering in the United States.  This year’s invasion of Snowy Owls is the most dramatic in at least 50 years.  Over 600 owls have been reported with at least 10 observed in Delaware. 

This image from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird database shows the extent of the Snowy Owl invasion into the U.S.  since November.
This image from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird database shows the extent of the Snowy Owl invasion into the U.S. since November.
This is a close up of the Snowy Owl sightings in Delaware since November from eBird.
This is a close up of the Snowy Owl sightings in Delaware since November from eBird.

The question of why so many of these arctic residents have flown so far south is not easy to explain; however, there is some consensus on a relatively new theory.  It is now believed that when populations of the Snowy Owl’s primary prey, a small rodent called the Lemming, rise to extremely high levels, Snowy Owls are able to have a very successful breeding season. Because of this abundant food supply the parent owls are able to rear more young than usual, producing up to eight fledglings per mated pair.  As winter descends on the arctic, it appears that these unusually abundant young owls have a difficult time competing with the adult owls, and are forced south to find food.  This year Snowy Owls have flown as far south as Florida, although most are showing up in the northern half of the US.  The visiting owls tend to prefer open areas such as coastal dunes, marshes, agricultural areas, and airports; apparently because these areas most closely resemble their tundra home.

There have been up to three Snowy Owls along Lukens Drive near the Delaware Memorial Bridge for several weeks.  Photo by Jim White.
There have been up to three Snowy Owls along Lukens Drive near the Delaware Memorial Bridge for several weeks. Photo by Jim White.

The Snowy Owls that birders have been able to enjoy in Delaware have been in or near open fields along the Delaware River and Bay, and in the sand dunes along the Delaware Bay and in Cape Henlopen and Delaware Seashore State Parks.  Most are observed perched either on a high point on the ground, or on a pole, rooftop, or other man-made structure.  Considered a diurnal (daytime) predator, Snowy Owls seem to do most of their hunting near sunrise and sunset when their prey is most active. In our area, “Snowies” feed on a variety of prey such as meadow voles, Norway rats, and waterfowl.  Snowy Owls tend to be relatively unafraid of humans and often allow observers excellent views and photographic opportunities.  However, observers should never approach so close as to make the owl fly or otherwise disturb the bird.

There have been as many as three Snowy Owls at Delaware Seashore State Park recently.  This one was photographed in the Savages Ditch area.  Photo by Jim White.
There have been as many as three Snowy Owls at Delaware Seashore State Park recently. This one was photographed in the Savages Ditch area. Photo by Jim White.

If you have not already done so, try to get out and witness this possibly once in a life time natural event. Drop me a line at Jim@delawarenaturesociety.org for the latest info on the Delaware Snowy Owls.

The Delaware Nature Society has several programs about owls coming up soon.  Please visit our website, www.delawarenaturesociety.org or call us at (302) 239-2334 for more information.

Owl and Raptor Fest – Saturday, January 11, Ashland Nature Center, 3-5pm.  Free for members of the Delaware Nature Society and the Delaware Museum of Natural History.  $5 for non-members.  Enjoy an owl and raptor slide show, photography tour, owl pellet dissection, owl story, owl calling contest, and refreshments.

Dinner and Owls – Friday, January 17, 6:30-9:30pm.  Coverdale Farm Preserve.  $30 for members of the Delaware Nature Society/$45 for non-members.  Enjoy a seasonal and warming dinner prepared by “Farm Chef” Michele Wales, followed by a walk around the farm with Jim White in search of Great Horned, Eastern Screech, and the rare Saw-whet Owl.  Adults only.

Owls and 0ther Winter Raptors – Sunday, February 9, 8am-7pm.  $30 for members of the Delaware Nature Society/$45 for non-members. This is our traditional owling trip with Jim White in search of potentially 8 species of owls in one day, including Snowy Owls.  Travel is by van to multiple locations to attempt to locate Great Horned, Eastern Screech, Barred, Barn, Long-eared, Short-eared, Saw-whet, and Snowy Owls, as well as various hawks, falcons, eagles, and harrier.  Adults only.

Owls at Bucktoe – Saturday, March 1, 5:30-7:30pm.  Bucktoe Creek Preserve.  $5 for members of the Delaware Nature Society/$10 for non-members.  Join Holly Merker on a walk around the Bucktoe Creek Preserve near Kennett Square, PA in search of Great Horned, Barred, and Eastern Screech Owls.  Enjoy a campfire dinner (bring your own) and see several species of owl taxidermy.

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