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Archive for Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Snowy owls head south in search of food

The bird seen here is one of three snowy owls seen Dec. 10 at Smithville Lake in Missouri’s Clay County. This individual was seen at dawn sitting on a sign at the south end of the dam.

The bird seen here is one of three snowy owls seen Dec. 10 at Smithville Lake in Missouri’s Clay County. This individual was seen at dawn sitting on a sign at the south end of the dam.

December 28, 2011

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While the lack of snow on the ground may have put a damper on the holiday season, it’s something of a boon for those trying to spot a rare sight around these parts.

One of three Snow Owls seen at Smithville Lake in Clay County, Mo., on Dec. 10, 2011. This individual was seen at dawn sitting on a sign at the south end of the dam. At about 8 a.m., it flew north across the face of the dam and was again found on the road to Shelter 1 and 2 in the park south of the Paradise Pointe Golf Course.

One of three Snow Owls seen at Smithville Lake in Clay County, Mo., on Dec. 10, 2011. This individual was seen at dawn sitting on a sign at the south end of the dam. At about 8 a.m., it flew north across the face of the dam and was again found on the road to Shelter 1 and 2 in the park south of the Paradise Pointe Golf Course.

Snowy owls are large birds, about 2 feet tall with a wingspan that can reach up to nearly 5 feet long. And a lack of food in their natural tundra habitat is driving them south to Kansas and Missouri.

Mark Robbins, a Kansas University ornithologist, is hoping that if people spot an owl they’ll take pictures and send them to him at mrobbins@ku.edu. He’s particularly interested in getting a glimpse of the birds from the back, especially the area near the nape of the neck and tail. He’s trying to use the coloring and banding present to determine the age and sex of the birds found here.

The birds are here, he said, because of a natural cycle in their food supply. The owls typically eat a type of rodent called a lemming, or vole. An unusually large number of lemmings led to an unusually large number of owls reproducing. This led to the situation of today, with fewer lemmings, and owls forced to head south to find food.

The birds aren’t typically used to humans being around, which can be good and bad.

“You can usually walk right up to them and get some pretty good photos,” Robbins said.

But that also can put the birds in danger.

“A certain percentage of these birds are never going to make it back,” he said.

Some have died from being hit on roads, while others are dying of starvation. Robbins said if people find a dead owl, they should contact their local conservation agent.

Robbins said he’s received about 40 emails reporting sightings with photos. He guessed between 10 to 15 birds had been spotted in Kansas and 10 to 12 in Missouri. Three snowy owls were seen in one spot near Smithville Lake in Clay County, Mo. Another sighting was about two hours from Lawrence in Nemaha County, Kan., just south of the Nebraska border.

This explosion of snowy owl populations happens every few years or so, said Chuck Otte, president of the Kansas ornithological society. Otte, an agricultural extension agent in Junction City, said Kansas last saw the owls around 2005-06, and again in 2001-02. This time around, though, he guessed they were attracting a little more attention because people are just more connected.

“I’ve got the numbers of a half-dozen bird watchers in my cell phone,” he said.

If someone spots an owl, they can send an email from the site. And the relatively new email list distributes information rapidly to a larger number of people.

The developments in digital photography also make it easier to share photos.

The birds are easier to spot for several reasons, Otte said. They’re white, first off, meaning they blend well into their natural habitat, but not the Kansas plains. And, unlike many owls, they’re active in the daytime. They don’t typically roost in trees, and can be found sitting on fence posts, on the ground or, occasionally, on a telephone pole.

People are fascinated by owls, Otte said. He gave a talk recently in Topeka about owls and it drew more than 50 people. And these are bigger than usual, and beautiful, he said.

“I think there’s also a little bit of the Harry Potter thing,” Otte said.

It’s been fun for birders like Wichita resident Paul Griffin to track them down. He saw an email on the list, and raced out to the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge west of Hutchinson. He found some, and was able to take some good photos.

“A birdwatcher, a person, can go a lifetime and never see a snowy owl in this part of the country,” he said.

Otte’s keeping his eyes open, too.

“There’s an awful lot of white, plastic trash bags in the country,” he said.

Comments

riverdrifter 3 years ago

Last time I saw a snowy was 10-15 years ago near Globe. I'll keep an eye out.

Owls rule; citified sissies suck.

riverdrifter 3 years ago

Walk up to a Snowy, Py and you get the message real quick: they're big and they look at you like you owe them money. As the articles says, look for them on fence posts. Take your binocs and scan far away for them.

Brent Fry 2 years, 12 months ago

No joke, I saw one on a Friday night at 10th and Vermont. It had a dead squirrel right in the middle of the street. It was cold & rainy so there wasn't a whole lot of traffic/activity going on at the time (midnight). This was probably 3 or 4 weeks ago. I slowed down to get a better look and it just stared right back at me. Very cool to see.

tolawdjk 2 years, 12 months ago

Had a Great Horned (or at least I believe it was) land on top of a tree in the neighbors yard while I was taking the kids out trick or treating on Halloween this year. Really set the mood.

ahyland 2 years, 12 months ago

There's something off with our online system... because it looks to me like it should show up, but it's certainly not. We're working on it.

The excellent photos were submitted to us by Michael Andersen, a KU graduate student.

Andy Hyland LJW KU Reporter

50YearResident 2 years, 12 months ago

Full front page news? It must be a slow news day. Yawnnnnn, snort, zzzzzzzzzz.

Celeste Plitz 2 years, 12 months ago

I'll take the latest Snowy Owl news over the depressing crap that usually makes it to the front page any day...

tao7 2 years, 12 months ago

I've been going up to Smithville Lake for the last few weeks to to see the snowy owls. Very cool!

blindrabbit 2 years, 12 months ago

Not a snowy owl, but 3 weeks ago, driving West of Council Grove on US 50 and saw a totally white large buteo hawk. Not an albino as it had dark eyes, my assumption was that it was a red-tailed as it was with a couple of normal colored like sized birds.

Dan Thalmann 2 years, 12 months ago

Probably a Krider's Red-tailed Hawk, which is a light form of the common red-tail. A Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk can also be seen in Kansas, which is the dark form.

Oldsoul 2 years, 12 months ago

Individual indeed! Owls are my grandmother's spirit animal, and I believe I inherited some of the same tendencies. The photos are wonderful.

Katara 2 years, 12 months ago

I had a pair of Great Horneds in the back but I have not heard their calls for about 2 years now. I miss them. Plus the voles have come back with a vengeance since they have been gone.

Crossing my fingers that a Snowy will come by for a feast!

50YearResident 2 years, 12 months ago

I saw a Pileated Woodpecker last weekend here in Douglas County. Got a picture of it too.

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