November 24, 2014

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Birdwatchers gather to see snow owls around Lake Erie

Bird watchers and photographers from all over the state have been converging to see the snowy owls that have been seen in the area. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

Bird watchers and photographers from all over the state have been converging to see the snowy owls that have been seen in the area. BRUCE BISHOP/CHRONICLE

LORAIN — For many nature lovers and birdwatchers, the rare influx of snowy owls into Ohio this year is a stunning occurrence.

“It’s been just outstanding,” Jamey Emmert, of the wildlife division of The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said about large numbers of snowy owl sightings reported this winter.

Snowy owls are northern-born and typically reside in areas such as Northern Canada and the tundra of Siberia, occasionally traveling south in the winter to search for food.

According to Emmert, only a few snowy owl sightings are reported in Ohio each year.

However, since late November, the number of sightings has increased from the norm. So far, 124 different owls have been reported in the state and five different owls have been reported in Lorain County.

It is largely because of this phenomenon that birdwatchers and photographers from across the state flocked this week to Lake Erie, where most of the sightings have been reported.

Dave Liggett, a photographer from Columbus, said he heard about the sightings online and immediately drove to Lorain, hoping to get a glimpse of the bird.

“Within 10 minutes of being here, I saw my first snowy owl,” Liggett said. “It’s a rare thing for Ohio.”

A snowy owl flies at Spitzer Marina in Lorain. The species has been drawing watchers to Lake Erie for a glimpse of the bird, a rarity in Ohio.

A snowy owl flies at Spitzer Marina in Lorain. The species has been drawing watchers to Lake Erie for a glimpse of the bird, a rarity in Ohio.

Other birdwatchers didn’t have Liggett’s initial luck.

Former school teacher and budding photographer Trish Hopkins said she went to multiple spots around Lake Erie before her efforts were rewarded with a sighting and a photo.

“Just looking into the owl’s eyes … it’s quite a spiritual experience for me,” Hopkins said.

While the mass migration is exciting for biologist Jim McCormac, he can explain the phenomenon by looking at the birds’ feeding patterns.

“Snowy owls are an irruptive species,” McCormac said, meaning the population is known to increase abruptly in size. He added that every four years, the number of lemmings — snowy owls’ main source of food in the north — increases in the summer and drastically decreases in the winter. When this happens, the owls will travel farther south than usual in the winter in search of more food. The result is a larger number of snowy owl sightings in northern Ohio and along the East Coast.

The owls will often stay around bodies of water to hunt ducks, McCormac said.

The sheer number of owl sightings — which has been increasing since November — most likely will continue to bring in bird-lovers until the owls migrate north again in the spring, according to McCormac.

“People love rarities,” he said.

Contact Anna Merriman at 329-7245 or amerriman@chroniclet.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnaLMerriman.

The snowy owl:

Height: 24 inches
Wingspan: 4 feet, 7 inches
Description: A big, round-headed owl, ranging in color from pure white to white with dark spotting or barring. Female is larger and more heavily marked than male, but the markings are variable enough that some birds are difficult to sex.
Voice: Usually silent; hoarse croak and shrill whistle on breeding grounds.
Habitat: Open country — tundra, dunes, marshes, fields, plains and airports in winter.
Range: Breeds in northern Alaska and in northernmost Canada. Winters south throughout Canada into northern United States, irregularly farther. Also in Eurasia.

SOURCE: audubon.org