Snowy Owls descend on Vermont

Recently, snowy owls have been seen in greater numbers around Vermont in a rare visit from their normal Arctic habitat.  Photo courtesy of D. Andrew Saunders

Recently, snowy owls have been seen in greater numbers around Vermont in a rare visit from their normal Arctic habitat.  Photo courtesy of D. Andrew Saunders

Snowy owls have been spotted in locations throughout Vermont as they descend from the Canadian Arctic in what scientists are calling a rare event. They have been most frequently noticed in the flatter, wide-open areas of the Champlain Valley.

The birds are usually an uncommon sight in Vermont. Major snowy owl irruptions typically occur only once every four years or so; but in recent winters, they have become more frequent, with large numbers sighted in the continental United States during 2011 and 2012.

Vermont’s birding community is excited about the owls’ arrival. “This is a tremendous event for Vermont’s birders,” said John Buck, nongame bird project leader for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. “These large, majestic white birds are seldom seen here. It is a real treat to catch a glimpse of one.”
Buck noted the reason for the birds’ appearance is more abundant food in Vermont than in their northern winter habitats. The owls primarily feed on lemmings, which rely on the protective insulation of a deep arctic snowpack to stay warm. When the snowpack becomes thinner in arctic areas due to rain or temperature fluctuations, lemmings are exposed to cold winter temperatures and their populations can plummet.

“Snowy owls migrate south when populations of rodents, their main food source, start to decline up north,” said Buck. “Ironically, spells of warmer arctic temperatures or rain can cause rodent populations to decline, driving snowy owls south in search of food.”

To increase your chances of viewing a snowy owl, Buck recommends that you check fence posts along open fields. “Snowy owls are typically found in open areas, and unlike many owl species, they are active both day and night.”

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