Snowy owl mass migration blanketing parts of Michigan in feathery white

It's December, and the snow is flying in the Upper Peninsula and other parts of Michigan. It's also landing, feeding and getting its photo taken.

A large flock of migrating snowy owls, known as an irruption, has made its way into Michigan, with numbers unlike anything seen in some parts of the state in recent years.

"I saw five in Schoolcraft County on Tuesday," said bird-watching enthusiast Joe McDonnell of Bark River. 

"They're all over here," said Todd Keough, sales manager at Getz's Department Store in Marquette. 

An employee filmed a snowy owl hanging out by the sidewalk in downtown Marquette, just outside the store, on Wednesday, and the Facebook post of the video has others in the region posting photos of their close encounters with the birds.

Unlike most owls, which are active and hunting at night, snowy owls work the day shift too. The light doesn't bother them because at their summer home, in the Arctic regions in Canada's and Alaska's far north, the sun shines 24 hours a day.

Michigan seems to be getting more of them now than anybody, said McDonnell, based on reports to the birding site ebird.org.

"This is an event, and it's not an annual event," he said. "The numbers vary so much from year to year."

Michigan has been on a good string of snowy owl sightings for about the past decade, with a few of those years in particular "incredible; we've never seen anything like it," said Caleb Putnam, bird conservation coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Audubon Great Lakes.

"This is shaping up to be a very good year," he said.

Scientists, until fairly recently, believed that snowy owl migrations were driven by hunger and scarce resources in the Arctic, a southern quest for food. While that can be a factor in some years, it's usually the converse that's true. Research shows snowy owl irruptions in places like the Great Lakes are instead driven by a very successful summer, full of an abundance of food.

"There was a major breeding event in northern Canada this year," said Scott Weidensaul, co-director of the nonprofit Project SNOWstorm, which uses scientific research to better understand the owls, and also works with the public to conserve them.

That success was driven by a peak in the population cycle of snowy owls' favorite food at their northern home, lemmings, a small rodent found on the tundra, he said. Every four years, on average, the lemming population swells, making snowy owl breeding and survival of young more prosperous. And then comes an irruption into places like Michigan, he said.

Snowy owls are rather odd migrants. They'll stay a full Michigan winter if they feel there is sufficient food around, with no interest in heading further south where things might be easier. Unlike, say, a robin, they don't want to be where it's warm. But sometimes they will be. This year's irruption includes snowy owls seen as far south as North Carolina and Virginia, Weidensaul said.

A snowy owl banded at an airport in Michigan a couple of years ago was next trapped by a researcher in North Dakota while migrating, and given a radio transmitter, he said. The bird went back up to the Arctic for the summer, then spent last winter in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan, he said. 

"They have evolved a highly nomadic lifestyle that allows them to take advantage of these widely spaced habitats," Weidensaul said. "They could be in the eastern Canadian Arctic one year, then in Greenland another year. How they know there are lemmings in Greenland in a particular year is anybody's guess. But, somehow, they know."

For Michigan, that means a mixed bag, Putnam said.

"You have huge years, and you have really poor years, when most of them stay up there," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen until it happens. You feel like you are pulling the slot lever."

While irruptions can sometimes be full of adult snowy owls, the ones being seen in places like Michigan this year "are fat, healthy, young snowy owls," he said.

Owls look for habitat here that reminds them of their Arctic home — very wide-open spaces with few trees; places like airports, large farm fields and shorelines, Putnam said.

Some snowy owls with transmitters were observed hanging out along Lakes Michigan and Huron, but researchers would not see them feeding. 

"After we went to bed, a bird flew out over Lake Michigan, seven miles out. They caught ducks sleeping there at night, just swooped down and got them," Putnam said.

"They are just completely comfortable out on the ice floes and the big, open water."

A snowy owl can take down a bird as big as a Canada goose, Weidensaul said.

There is still much to know about snowy owls — more may be known about their behavior in the Arctic than in their winter locations to the south, he said.

"I would say every single one of the 50-some snowy owls we've put GPS transmitters on has surprised us in some way," Weidensaul said.

There's just something about them, McDonnell said.

"Everybody is attracted to the snowy owl," he said. "They're very photogenic, and they're very charismatic."

Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.

Have a news tip? Email news@wzzm13.com, visit our Facebook page or Twitter

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment