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February Snowy Owls

Posted on Feb 10, 2015

This blog entry is a companion to the Winter Bird Forecasts brought to you by Audubon Connecticut and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. Be sure to check out Winter Bird Forecast #5! Oh my, has it been cold and snowy or what? The last month was historic for some of our region as Boston and many other areas of Massachusetts have been buried in feet of snow. Parts of Connecticut and New York have been inundated as well and everyone across the Northeast has felt frigid air with barely any days above freezing, totally lacking any significant thaws. It is the definition of Snowy Owl weather and days like this one with Snowy sightings make our landscape in Chautauqua County look like the arctic tundra.

Let’s take a look at the Southern Great Lakes snow depth map first as of today, February 10.


You can clearly see the effect of elevation features and the escarpment along Lake Erie on snow accumulation. This is the same map for the Northeast – some locations have over 40 inches of snow!


Speaking of the Great Lakes they have become far more frozen as of late. When I posted this same map from January 10 the total ice area was only 19.8%, making for a 34.1% increase in that time.

Great Lakes ice 2-10-15

So where are the Snowy Owls? Here’s the eBird map for the species for all of 2015. Take a look at this before I make a few points…

Snowy Owl map eBird 02-10-15

First of all, it seems like the Snowys present have not moved much whatsoever in the last few weeks. The blue points, over 30 days old, are essentially from the first couple of weeks of January. The distribution is about the same as it is now. If you look at New England and the Mid-Atlantic alone you will note that all of the birds seem to be right along waterways, whether it is the Great Lakes, the Finger Lakes, major rivers or the Atlantic coast. However, when you move over to the Midwest you can see a larger spread of birds that are not necessarily by the waters of the Great Lakes or other bodies. At least that is my impression – interesting!

Let’s take a look at some graphs to get a feel for the numbers of Snowy Owls. I used data from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for a good balance of local states with some coast and a lot of open country. This is once again only for Snowy Owls seen in those five states in 2015, and the week of 2/1 is the final week with complete data at the moment. Here is frequency, the percentage of total checklists entered into eBird that had a Snowy Owl in them…

Snowy Owl eBird frequency February

Snowys seem to be around 1.4%-1.8% before dipping during the previous week to around 1%. Here is the average count, or the average number of birds the observer detected when the species was encountered…

Snowy Owl eBird average count February

Not surprisingly typically one or possibly two Snowy Owls are seen at a time as this raptor is mostly a solo act here at our latitude. While those single sightings are the overwhelming majority, what is the highest number of individuals seen by one observer in these areas in 2015?

Snowy Owl eBird high count February

It turns out that answer is nine, and I believe that is a strong seven more than I have even seen at once! Even if that checklist was over a wide area or during a traveling count it is still very impressive. The other peaks were four, four, six and five. This begs the question of how many birds total were seen each week in our five states…

Snowy Owl eBird totals February

It is not surprising the first week of January has the high of 317 because so many birders get outdoors for the New Year. It seems our local populations were very stable until around February 1, at which time they have dropped off somewhat. I would wager part of this is people spending more time indoors after repeated major storms and coastal nor’easters, dropping temperatures, and generally difficult birding conditions (a lot more window checklists and fewer eyes in remote uncomfortable places that Snowys like). I would also bet some of the birds have moved out into even more distant places, hunting waters on the Great Lakes while remaining on unreachable ice 24 hours a day, on offshore islands or other unknown areas of the Atlantic coastline. Some may be hunkered down in marshes and beaches where many humans are declining to venture out to visit at the moment. Let’s brave the weather for this weekend’s Great Backyard Bird Count and get out there to find all the Snowy Owls we can!

Our next Winter Bird Forecast brought to you by Audubon Connecticut and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History will be coming soon, focused on the Great Backyard Bird Count and more great February species. Don’t forget to read Winter Bird Forecast #5 – good birding!

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator