Snowy Owl

Out here on the sanctuary, our favorite sign that winter is finally on its way are the first sightings of snowy owls! Even before our first snow flurries, we had a flurry of snowy owl activity with two confirmed owls in multiple sightings. Though we don’t see them every year, this year seems to be promising for snowy owl sightings in our area. In Wisconsin the snowy owl irruption began in November, with 105 birds spotted by November 29 -- a record for this date according to data from the Wisconsin DNR from the past eight years. Snowy owl sightings have been widespread across the Midwest and along the East Coast, with larger concentrations around the Great Lakes.

  Photo by Richard Armstrong

Photo by Richard Armstrong

Snowy owls are the largest owl (by weight) in North America that spend their summers breeding and hunting their favorite food, lemmings, in the Arctic Circle. Some years they will remain in the treeless tundra through the winter, while other years -- like this one -- they migrate to southern Canada and northern United States (and must feel quite at home when they rest in the treeless fields of Wisconsin). Click here to read about habitats snowies use when they migrate south during irruption years. The magnificently white owls (think Harry Potter's Hedwig) are adult males, while females and juveniles have more brown specs throughout their plumage.

  Photo by Rich Armstrong

Photo by Rich Armstrong

And they are as thrilling to see in person as you imagine or can attest to. My first snowy owl sighting was this year at Goose Pond! Now that I've seen one, I'm hooked on seeing them again. But we at Goose Pond spend a lot of time keeping tabs on these owls not just because we're obsessed with these beautiful creatures, but because they are mysterious animals and what exactly they're doing here and for how long is a puzzle we are trying to piece together with Project SNOWstorm. More on that below.

At Goose Pond the first sighting this year was on November 30 when my husband, Aaron Dumas, was driving home down Prairie Lane and saw a very white snowy owl fly in front of his vehicle from the direction of Wingspan. What a shot it would be to get a photo of a snowy owl sitting on the Wingspan goose! Multiple sightings over the next two weeks of both this white snowy owl, and a bird with more dark flecks show that we have at least two snowies out here. It's possible that the owls were originally attracted to our area by the constant calls of the swans, geese and ducks that remained on the pond until recently. At least two owls have hung around since the waterfowl left. 

On the evening of December 12, Goose Pond staff and volunteers were searching for the owls from 4:00 PM till dark. Sue, Arlene Koziol, and Linda Pils found a dark-flecked owl sitting on a UW Agricultural Station outbuilding about a two miles southeast of the pond. About ten minutes later, my group -- Mark, Caleb, and I -- spotted another dark-flecked owl sitting on a utility pole on Goose Pond Road just north of our Lapinski-Kitze Prairie. We were also rewarded with sightings a great-horned owl and a short-eared owl in the area. It was an owl sort of night!

  Photo by Lester Doyle

Photo by Lester Doyle

The next evening Mark and I again searched for owls just before dark. Mark spotted a very white snowy owl flying at us, then over the Kampen Road residence. Just a minute later we found a brownish snowy owl on Kampen Road just east of the railroad tracks. Two snowies in two minutes!

Given the amount of snowy owl activity out here, Project SNOWstorm, a snowy owl research and conservation group, will try to attach a GPS-GSM transmitter on one of owls! Last night was our first attempt at trapping an owl for the project, but with twelve people out searching we saw not a single snowy owl! We will try again in a couple weeks.

  Photo by Pam Sam

Photo by Pam Sam

The transmitters that Project SNOWstorm uses are a wonderfully innovative piece of technology. They are solar-powered, and use the cell phone network to record latitude, longitude, and altitude of the bird at intervals as short as thirty seconds. These transmitters have given researchers detailed insight into snowy owl behavior. For example, they found:

  • some birds spend nearly all their time within a quarter mile of where they were banded, while others will fly hundreds of miles in a few weeks.
  • snowy owls feed much more heavily on birds in the winter than previously thought. Some snowies remain on large bodies of water for weeks at a time, following small openings in the ice that attract gulls, ducks and grebes.  
  • snowies, as apex predators, are still being exposed to a great number of environmental contaminants such as DDE, mercury, and rodenticides.

Madison Audubon Society partnered with Project SNOWstorm in 2015 to release a snowy owl out at Goose Pond Sanctuary that was originally trapped at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee. Read more about the bird, named “Goose Pond,” here.

Transmitters cost $3,000 each, and Project SNOWstorm relies on donations from the public and non-profits like Madison Audubon Society to cover these and other research costs. If a Goose Pond owl is outfitted with a transmitter this year, we will likely name it “Arlington” after the village and township of Arlington, and the historic Arlington Prairie. 

  Photo by Lester Doyle

Photo by Lester Doyle

Get into the wintery spirit and come look for the snowy owls yourself! The best times to search are dusk and dawn and keep your eyes on on utility poles, fence posts, and silos. Please be sure to keep a respectful distance from these wild animals, as they rest and hunt around Goose Pond Sanctuary. If the owls looking at you (let alone flying away from you), you're too close!

Happy Owl-idays to all!

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Rich Armstrong