by Brianna Riesbeck, Volunteer.
If you’re interested in birds or are involved at all in the Chemung Valley birding community, you may have heard rumors of a gorgeous Snowy Owl that has taken up residence (for a time) near the Elmira airport. Since then, several other sightings have been reported from birders within the Chemung Valley Birdwatchers group on Facebook and many others have tried to spot it. There’s no doubt that this is a pretty rare sighting for Elmira. Snowy Owls spend their breeding season in the Arctic tundra, a place many of us will never see in our lifetime. Out of their breeding season, these owls will sometimes migrate south and end up in southern Canada and a bit of the northern United States. Some of the last recorded sightings in Elmira were in late 2013. It’s not out of the question for this species to end up farther south, but it certainly isn’t common!
If you’ve never seen a Snowy Owl, they’re pretty hard to miss. Mature males are almost entirely white while females and immature owls are heavily barred. Their plumage is thick to protect against the harsh tundra climate. They are the largest owls in North America by weight, averaging about four pounds. They hunt lemmings as their main food source during the summer breeding season but they’ll consume a wider range of small mammals and birds in the winter. And, to the great joy of birders hoping to get a look at this owl, Snowy Owls are diurnal and spend their active hours in the daylight.
So what brings this beautiful bird down to Elmira? It’s tough to say for sure. Rather than migrating as a species based on changes in temperature, it seems that only some Snowy Owls migrate while others remain North in their breeding range. According to the Owl Research Institute, Snowy Owls often migrate in their first year of life while mature owls (particularly females) stay behind. The variation in migration is thought to be tied to food availability but that’s not the sole factor in whether or not we’ll spot this owl in New York. The only concrete evidence that we do have is that large southern migrations of Snowy Owls (called “irruptions” or “irruptive migration”) consistently follow a very successful breeding season. Sometimes this means that there are more owls hunting than available prey. But other times, irruptions of this species will still occur even when lemming populations are high and food is plentiful. So does the fact that we have a Snowy here in Elmira confirm trouble with food resources? Not necessarily.
Because of their huge territories and unpredictable migration, estimating the Snowy Owl population has been incredibly difficult. Partners in Flight, an organization dedicated to the conservation of land bird species, estimated that the breeding population of Snowy Owls in the 2000’s was around 200,000. About 24% of that 200,000 wintered in the United States. It is now thought that the estimate was quite excessive. The current estimate of mature breeding pairs of Snowy Owls is closer to 14,000 – 28,000. Due to the remote nature of their breeding grounds, human interference is not a big factor in the decline of this species. However, as with nearly every arctic species, climate change makes them highly vulnerable to decline and extinction. Audubon’s climate vulnerability estimator shows that just a 1.5° Celsius increase in global temperature would result in a 53% loss of the current Snow Owl breeding habitat.
The fact that the Snowy has shown up at the airport is no surprise. In fact, airports are a very common place to spot owls and other raptors. Wide open fields present an excellent hunting ground to capture small mammals. And this works out really well for us – there’s no need to traipse through a densely-wooded area in order to see some of the coolest birds that North America has to offer. And, even better for us, Snowy Owls do quite a bit of sitting. Remember when I said they were the heaviest owls in North America? It takes a lot of energy to get four pounds off the ground! Our Elmira Snowy has been seen sitting on gravestones, lamp posts and in the bed of a truck. And while it’s incredibly exciting to spot a Snowy Owl, please remain respectful of it’s space. By staying quiet, keeping a generous distance and viewing this owl through a scope or binoculars, you ensure that it won’t be wasting precious energy trying to get a comfortable distance away from you. Hopefully, this beauty will stick around long enough for plenty of people to get a glimpse!
If you have any photos to share of this beautiful animal that were taken from a distance, please feel free to post them on the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed’s Facebook Page. Happy Holidays!