Saturday, January 7, 2012

Snowy Owl Irruption

Snowy Owl Irruption brings owls close to Kansas City.

I live and work in St. Louis, and I've only ever passed through Kansas City twice on my way to work at the Renaissance Fair with WBS.  Recently there was an event that I considered worthy of taking a day off to drive out to Kansas City, walk around Smithville Lake for an hour and drive the four hours back.

2011/12 is a Snowy Owl Irruption year.  Snowy Owls are normally confined to the Canadian and Alaskan tundra.  However, in cycles of about 3-5 years, a phenomenon known as a Snowy Owl Irruption occurs.  An irruption is a sudden increase in appearances of a particular species of bird, in an area that is outside of its normal range.  This occurs when snowy owls leave their home range and travel southward, bringing the 'Snowies' much further south than their normal range, allowing those of us in the lower latitudes to get rare sightings of these normally arctic-bound beautiful creatures.

The cause of Snowy Owl irruptions is usually a large drop in the populations of lemmings, a small rodent that is a primary food source for the owls. However, lemmings were born in huge numbers this year, so more young snowy owls survived the first critical months of their lives. Because owl numbers are at a peak, adult snowy owls protect their food source for themselves by pushing juvenile birds away from their home range and southwards.
A female Snowy Owl seen at Smithville Lake 
This year, five different individuals have been regularly seen at Smithville Lake, 30 miles north of Kansas City.  They are so regular in their habits that sightings are all but guaranteed.  I was lucky enough to see a beautiful female sitting on the riprap of the dam wall, and another female flying across the lake.

If you go in the next few weeks, you may be lucky enough to see them too.  They have been spotted all over the country, so if Kansas City is out of your reach, take a look at this Snowy Owl Irruption Map  – and you may be able to spot one near you.  If you want to try finding them at Smithville Lake, you can go their website for updated sighting reports, or you can call ahead to the Nature Center at Smithville Lake and Little Platte Park  – The staff person there was very friendly and was enthusiastic to tell me when and where the last sightings were.  When I called they had seen three of them out the day before, in their usual spots, which was enough to get me in the car for the long drive.

Enjoy watching these beautiful birds.  When we finally found them, I was almost breathless with delight and wonder at how lovely they are.  My only request is that you be respectful – respect their space – they will tell you how close you can get. 
If you go searching for these owls bring your longest telephoto lens--chances are they will not be close!
If you walk towards them and it starts to move, you've got close enough.  You don't want to force them into repeated flight as you approach them, as flying is a very energy intensive activity and you don't want to put them in an energy deficit at the time of year when it is most difficult for them to find food.  

Also remember to keep yourself safe, and to obey all the traffic and other laws governing access to the dam wall area.  If the wildlife you want to view is on private property, make sure to get permission before entering.

Submitted by Catherine Redfern, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Fundraiser

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