Snowy Owl Facts and Precautions

Phone interview with Paul Bannick, 11/17/2011, by Christine Southwick

Editor’s Note: View Paul Bannick’s photo “Snowy Owl Singing in Fog” here

Today I talked to Paul Bannick, Author and Photographer of The Owl and The Woodpecker. With the reports of sighting along the Washington coast, this year appears to be an irruptive year for the Snowy Owl.

Christine Southwick: Paul, Where are these owls coming from and why are they here?

Paul Bannick: Snowy Owls breed on the Arctic Tundra, but the young disperse widely and different directions, so we don’t know if the owls we are seeing are from Alaska, Canada, or Asia. We do know that they are here in search of food. The most common explanation is that the birds are responding to a fall in lemming populations to the north, although the lemming cycles and Snowy Owl irruptions are not always directly correlated. The success of the prior year’s breeding owls likely plays a role as well, with many more birds putting pressure on whatever lemming populations remain.

CS: Is there a specific age or sex of the Snowy Owls that fly southward to find food?

PB: There is a hierarchy in Snowy Owls, with the adult females initially retaining breeding territories, while males and juveniles move south with juvenile males traveling the furthest. The final winter distribution from Arctic summer grounds to the primary wintering areas of the Great Plains finds adult females farthest north and immature males farthest south, with adult males and immature females somewhere in between. The Snowy Owl visitors to the East and West Coasts are mostly made up of irruptive first-year birds. Therefore, most of the Snowy Owls who travel down into Washington are juveniles, and the majorities of these are males.

CS: What kinds of food are these owls eating while they are here in WA?

PB: They are eating mostly rodents, and opportune birds. Rodents mostly move at night or dusk, so while the Snowy Owls are in Washington, most are hunting dusk through dawn. Having found an area that sustains it, a Snowy Owl may stay in the area for a while. These owls are hungry. The only reason that they fly this far south is to get enough food to survive. They need all the energy and fat that they can acquire. It is important that people, in their enthusiasm to see these magnificent owls, don’t crowd them and cause them to waste valuable energy. Expending energy unproductively can be the margin between surviving or starving.

CS: How would I know if I am too close and causing a Snowy to waste energy?

PB: These owls live on the ground, or only slightly above. They need much more distance than other owls because of their exposure. If you are closer than 100 yards (length of a full football field), you may be too close! A half a mile is more ideal. If you see the owl opening its eyes during full daylight, defecating, climbing to a higher perch, or especially flying away from you, you are probably TOO CLOSE. You are causing an owl harm every time it has to launch itself for reasons other than feeding.

CS: How does one get good pictures with that kind of distance?

PB: Patience is really the key. To get good pictures, one may have wait part or most of the day. Often at dusk, Snowys will start hunting, and pictures of them flying toward you can be successfully taken. Generally speaking, if a Snowy Owl is flying away from you, it is feeling crowded.

CS: What suggestions would you offer for people to be able to see these owls in ways that are healthy for the owls and satisfying for the viewers?

PB: First and foremost, keep your distance. That means use a scope if at all possible. If you are taking pictures, take advantage of high-powered lenses and tripods and/or digi-scoping. Be prepared to stay in one place for a while. Also, as the Snowy Owls get acclimated to their new winter area, they will settle down a little, and may allow people to come a little closer before becoming nervous. Therefore, it is recommended that people wait for a few weeks when they hear about a Snowy Owl in a new location. By late December or January, many of these owls will be in place and settled, and less likely to require that half mile. It may even be able to tolerate a closer approach, especially if you use your car as a blind. Watch for those signs of nervousness, and back away if you are bothering the owl.

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