I’ve been looking for a snowy owl in this year of “irruption.” So far, about 75 reports of this rare winter migrant have been logged in Kansas, mostly in a tier about two counties deep along the Kansas-Nebraska border. This is the most since the early 1970s. I’ve yet to see a wild snowy this year, but I did film one today that was just checked into rehab at the Milford Nature Center. It was a male, usually distinguished by being much “whiter” than female snowys, which are heavily barred with charcoal markings.
It once was thought that snowy owls came down from the arctic in winter only when their principal food source – lemmings – suffered population crashes that forced the owls south to find food. New thinking says the owl migration is actually the result of high lemming populations. More food means better nesting success, and the snowy owls, which can lay more than 10 eggs, actually produce peak numbers of young which are then crowded out during winter months. This high population of juveniles heads south into Kansas, resulting in the unusual sightings.
Snowy owls are striking, with bright golden eyes in a white face. They are somewhat round in profile when seen at a distance, easy to distinguish from the more slender hawk species with white breasts.
If projections are right, this year will break the record for snowy owls recorded during a Kansas winter. If you see one, take photos, but don’t get too close. Many of the juvenile birds are under extreme stress, made worse when humans approach. It’s often a weakened condition in snowy owls that makes it possible to approach them closely.