The Red River Valley is one of the best places in the country to see one of the most popular owls in the world – the Snowy Owl. In fact, during the winter, it's rare not to see one here. What's different this winter is how many have been reported – everywhere else in the country.
The likelihood of spotting one of these Arctic owls in the lower 48 states depends on their breeding success and winter food availability. Snowies are the largest (by weight) owls in North America. They lay 3-11 eggs. In the fall, too many owls (breeding success) and not enough rodents (food scarcity), trigger a southern migration – known as an "irruption."
This winter may set a new record. Snowy Owls are turning up all over the Midwest and eastern United States. They've been reported in 33 states so far.
The first week in December more than 300 were spotted in Newfoundland. A week later, 15 were spotted during the Brooklyn (NYC) Christmas Bird Count. And they've been spotted in places birders wouldn't expect – as far south as Jacksonville, Florida and east to the island of Bermuda!
How are they doing in Minnesota?
More than 100 have been reported in Minnesota so far, most in the St. Cloud area and the Twin Cities. But until recently, only a few had been reported in the northwestern part of the state. So few, that I almost gave up on seeing a Snowy Owl this winter.
Had they all flown by when I wasn't looking?
I decided to go out and see if I could find one on December 31st.
Spotting a Snowy Owl can be easier than you might think. They're active during the day, so you don't need a flashlight to find one. They like to hunt rodents along roadsides, ditches and grasslands. And they like to perch on electrical poles, grain bins and road signs.
So you don't have to go hiking in the snow. Just hop in your car, turn on your heater and drive the rural roads – slowly. Look for a white lump, a foot or two tall that looks "out of place."
I was just south of the grain elevators in Sherack on Polk Co. 20, when I spotted a white lump on a power pole. I stopped. I grabbed my camera, rolled down the window and photographed my first Snowy Owl of this winter season.
The next day, I went back for another look – and I wasn't disappointed.
I spotted a Snowy Owl at the top of a grain bin just south of Warren. Down the road near Sherack MN, I spotted "my" New Year's Eve Snowy - sitting atop the same power pole. Further south on Polk Co. 20, I spotted a Snowy near the beet piles at O'Meara (west of Euclid) and, one more on a power pole, as I drove west towards East Grand Forks on Polk Co. 19.
Page 2 of 2 - It can be that easy.
The next day, I stopped by the NAPA store in Warren and chatted with Paul Crummy who lives in rural Argyle. Have you seen any Snowy Owls?
"I've seen two," he said, matter-of-factly. Where? "Marshall Co. 19."
I hopped in my car and drove up US 75 towards Argyle. I turned left on County 19.
Sure enough, I spotted a Snowy Owl sitting right in the middle of the road two miles from Paul Crummy's house. About 4 miles down the road, I spotted another one.
It took only four hours to spot six Snowy Owls.
I suspect there are more out there, and I'm looking for help finding them. Keep in mind, it's tough for birds to find dinner in this sub-zero weather, so please don't "chase" or harass them.
If you see a Snowy Owl, please call Agassiz Audubon (218-745-5663) or email (AgassizAudubon@gmail.com) - note the location (miles to the nearest intersection), date and time, and if you can, take a photo!
Help us keep northwestern Minnesota on the list of places to see these special birds.
Your sightings may also help scientists answer another question about this winter's irruption: Are more Snowy Owls on their way here – or are they under-reported in northwestern Minnesota?
Help us find out!