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Snowy owls slower to return to Wisconsin this year


After spending their summers in the arctic, snowy owls have begun to fly south into Canada and northern portions of the U.S.

In irruption years, spotters have counted up to 280 snowy owls in the state.

Other years, it can be less than half that.

It’s still a little too early to tell how this year will shape up.

DNR Conservation Biologist Ryan Brady says they’ve been a bit slow to return this year.

“In some winters we would already see some really good numbers, maybe even dozens of snowy owls in the state. Other years they tend to come a little later. It really varies from year to year. This year, as of mid-November, we’ve only had a few sightings,” said Brady.

The mild fall could be to blame for their slow return.

But Brady says it has less to do with the temperatures.

“The birds don’t come south just cause it gets colder. They can tolerate extreme cold. The temperature itself is not really an issue,” he said. “Sometimes what we get are later migrations of owls when the weather is warm, of snowy owls in particular because that colder weather, what comes with it is northerly winds. It’s the northern winds that usher in these cold temperatures. Those are the same winds that are very favorable for migration.”

That’s of course if they return at all.

Brady says it’s not unheard of for the owls to stay in the arctic over the winter if there’s enough food for them.

“A good number of spend a fair bit of time eating waterfowl and if you have these warm years then you may have waterfowl that’s able to winter farther north later into the season and that provides a food source for these birds to stay up there,” said Brady.

So far this season, snow owls have been spotted in the Rib Mountain State Park and City of Ashland.

The owls like open areas. Think of fields, grasslands, wetlands, and even airports when trying to spot one.

Brady says they also tend to hang out around the Lake Superior and Michigan coastlines.

If you do spot one this winter, Brady encourages you to take a picture and enjoy the moment, but also be respectful of the beautiful bird.

“Sometimes it’s tempting to get a little too close or continually flush the owl or things like that makes the owl change its behavior, maybe keep it from sleeping, maybe keep it from foraging properly, might cause it to fly and waste energy. Worse yet you maybe spook it and it flies across the road and gets hit by a car, things like that,” said Brady.

The DNR has some general recommendations for observing snowy owls include:

  • do not approach an owl too closely -- you are too close if the bird frequently looks at you, sits erect with open eyes peering in your direction or flushes from its perch;
  • avoid repeated flushing;
  • do not play audio recordings from smartphones or other devices;
  • do not feed owls mice or other prey, which may lead to unintended negative impacts, like habituation to people, higher likelihood of vehicle collision and disease;
  • minimize the use of flash photography, especially after dark, as this can disrupt an owl's activity patterns;
  • when viewing from a vehicle (recommended!), turn off the engine to avoid interfering with the owl's auditory hunting technique;
  • ask landowner permission before frequenting private property; and
  • avoid blocking public roadways and access points.

Snowy owls tend to stick around in Wisconsin until early April.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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