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Snowy Owls Visit Centre County

by and on February 19, 2014 7:05 AM

The Arctic winds that blasted through our area this winter brought more than freezing temperatures.

Some unique visitors from the far north have popped up around the county and, in fact, all throughout the northeast.

Alert observers from New England through the Carolinas report record sightings of regionally-rare Snowy Owls. The fact that the large white birds don't make a habit of leaving the tundra makes this a truly extraordinary event.

"This is the biggest push on the East Coast for the past 50 years," according to State College Bird Club member Alex Lamoreaux, "and it's really gotten crazy since the New Year."

Lamoreaux studies Wildlife Sciences at Penn State and says that Centre County has had at least 10 new sightings of Snowy Owls. Reports, according to Lamoreaux, have come from birders as well as non-birders.

"People will travel all over to see a Snowy," he says, "but this season, they just went out and saw one right here."

The birds breed and normally spend their entire lives above the tree line. This means that the visiting birds, part of the 2013-2014 'irruption,' don't inhabit forested areas the way Great Horned and other local owls do. So most of the people seeing them around here have found them in fields, partially concealed by tufts of grass. Hot spots have included Circleville Road, Williams Road, Rusnak Hill Road and North Fillmore Road.

In their normal habitat, Snowies spend half the year in partial or total darkness and half in partial or constant sunlight. Therefore, they don't necessarily wait to hunt after dark.

And they do need to hunt, having flown nearly halfway around the world. Bird guides always caution observers to keep their distance and not disturb or alarm a bird who may need to concentrate on snagging prey.

"They're hunting rabbits, squirrels, mice and rats," Lamoreaux says.

An apex predator, Snowies typically eat lemmings, another denizen of the tundra. In fact, many experts maintain that a boom in lemmings a few years ago led to a boom in Snowy Owls. This, the theory goes, pushed younger birds out of their natural territory, and caused the current irruption.

Our heaviest owl, they weigh in at about six pounds, standing about two feet high. The wingspan can reach five feet. Many have pure white plumage, like Harry Potter's Hedwig, while others show "zebra stripes and a range of other markings," according to Lamoreaux.

Lamoreaux feels this irruption could last through March, which leaves plenty of time for more sightings. And he thinks this year "will probably be the best any birder will see."

Owls have fascinated humans throughout history, with their silent flight, haunting calls and physical beauty. But the Snowy Owl, with its white feathers, huge wingspan and agile flight, brings with it the mystery of its homeland, a place few of us will ever get to visit.



This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.


Ann is an Arts and Entertainment correspondent for the Gazette.
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