With their regal pose, piercing yellow eyes and fluffy, feathered legs, the owls are an unexpected winter attraction.
The owls are showing up in places they aren’t always seen, exciting birders and non-birders alike. They’ve been seen in many spots in lower Michigan, and some have made it as far as Texas and Hawaii.
Jerry Jourdan of Wyandotte hiked 6 miles last Sunday to photograph one at Pointe Mouillee State Game Area in Monroe County. From a distance, he saw a white lump on the ice, resembling a plastic bag. When he got closer, he could clearly see it was a snowy.
“It was an absolute thrill,” he said, even though it was not his first. Two weeks ago, he saw another snowy owl on top of a light pole in Harrison Township, and he has photographed the white creatures in northern Michigan in the past.
Scientists say the likely reason for the explosion is that the owls’ chief food source, small animals called lemmings, was abundant last summer, allowing the adults to raise more young. Now, in search of food, young owls are heading farther south.
Although there are a few snowy owls spotted in Michigan every year, “I can tell you this winter is highly unusual,” said Karen Cleveland, bird biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.
For Scott Jennex, an avid birder and member of the Oakland Audubon Society, snowy owls are among his favorite birds.
“This year has been pretty extraordinary,” he said.
He has gone out every other weekend, starting in November, to try to see them and has managed to photograph several, from Muskegon to Pointe Mouillee in Monroe County. “They’re spectacular,” he said.
Wildlife photographer Stacy Niedzwiecki, who lives near Grand Rapids, drove to Muskegon the day after Thanksgiving in search of her first snowy owl.
“Instead of going shopping for Black Friday, I wanted a white Friday,” she said.
She was in luck, spotting one in flight that she watched and photographed for several hours.
“I was so fortunate,” she said. “It’s one of the most impressive birds on the planet.”
Bird blogs and birding sites across the northern tier of the country are full of accounts and photographs of snowy owls this winter. Although snowy owls show up every winter in Michigan, especially in the Upper Peninsula, bird experts say the number of sightings has been unusually large this winter — and in more widespread locations than usual.
The phenomenon is called an irruption, an invasion of birds in unusual places or in high numbers. It usually occurs because of a lack of food in the birds’ home territory. For snowy owls, home is the Arctic tundra.
Michigan birding sites have reported sightings this winter of as many as six snowy owls in Tawas Point State Park, three near a wastewater treatment plant near Muskegon, two near a boat launch in Harrison Township and scattered birds in spots from Houghton to Harbor Beach. By early December, there were 60 sightings in 10 lower Michigan counties and 34 in the Upper Peninsula, according to bird experts who track sightings.
New ones are reported almost every day, although some may be the same birds.
One owl was perched on a building on the Hope College campus in Holland. Another spent several days at the Jeep plant in Detroit. Some have been spotted near Selfridge Air National Guard Base, and several have hung out at airports.
In late December, a crowd gathered around a grocery store near Grand Rapids, where a placid snowy owl perched on a roof, staring back at the humans taking photos.
The birds also have a following among Harry Potter fans. Harry’s friend Hedwig, who delivers messages, is a snowy owl.
“Most people go a lifetime without seeing one,” said Wyandotte birder Jerry Jourdan. “It’s an absolute thrill, and they’re much larger than you expect.”
Most of the birds that have made it this far are very young, said Francie Krawcke, director of the raptor program for the Leslie Science and Nature Center in Ann Arbor. The birds aren’t used to humans, and don’t know to be afraid of them, she said.
“They’re very laid-back,” said Dody Wyman, a licensed bird rehabilitator in Manchester who got an injured snowy owl earlier this winter after a couple in Muskegon found it in their yard. The birds will sit quietly for long periods and don’t seem easily startled.
“The one I have isn’t bringing me any messages,” she joked, referring to the fictional Hedwig.
The bird’s eye injury is nearly healed, but it will keep him from being released into the wild again. The bird, which isn’t named, likely will have a permanent home at the Leslie center, where other rehabilitated raptors that can’t be released into the wild live. Krawcke cares for the birds and uses them in educational presentations.
Snowies are large, magnificent owls that are usually about 2 feet tall with a wing span of 4-5 feet. Younger birds have speckled black markings; adult males grow whiter as they age. Most of those spotted below the Arctic this winter are less than a year old, Krawcke said.
The owls often are seen on the ground or perched on poles, resting or scanning for food. In Michigan, they mostly eat small voles, mice and rabbits. Some are healthy, but others are weak and stressed. As youngsters, not all are good hunters yet.
“Unfortunately, some end up choosing places to hunt where there are no prey,” said Krawcke. “They often end up starving.”
The owls often are found at airports because the wide open spaces look like the tundra where they live, said Karen Cleveland, bird biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources. Sadly, those airport fields may not provide enough food — a snowy owl died of apparent starvation after spending several weeks around the Kalamazoo airport, according to local reports.
The birds are federally protected, and possessing them without a special permit is against the law. People should keep their distance from the birds and be careful not to disturb them, said Cleveland. Spooking them causes them to use up energy and weaken them. Unless a bird is clearly injured, it shouldn’t be disturbed, she said. If it is injured, the DNR has a list of licensed bird rehabilitators such as Wyman.
Photographer Niedzwiecki said she went back after a few weeks to the site in Muskegon where she saw her first snowy, and found it full of paparazzi, who eventually scared away the bird they were photographing.
“Let them be,” she said.