With a wingspan of nearly 5 feet and piercing yellow eyes, snowy owls are magnificent. In the winter, some migrate south from their home in the Arctic, making snowy owl sightings in Michigan a wonderful possibility.
When do the birds migrate? And where are they typically spotted? Local expert Elliot Nelson is the Michigan Sea Grant extension educator for the Eastern Upper Peninsula. Michigan Sea Grant funds research, education and outreach projects about our state’s coasts and the Great Lakes. One of Elliot’s focus areas is birding trails, and he kindly agreed to answer my questions, offering tips on how to see a snowy owl and a reminder to always be respectful of the bird.
A shortened version of this interview appears in the January 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Enjoy the full version below.
Typically, snowy owls start showing up in late-December and stay through March. Are there other trends to know?
Snowy owls are irregular and complex migrants to the lower 48 states. They spend their summers in the Arctic tundra, where they nest on the ground (not many trees that far north!) and raise their young on a steady diet of lemmings, other small mammals and occasionally birds like ducks. In the fall, they begin to move about seeking to establish a winter territory with an ample food supply. Because prey is more spread out in the winter months, and because there are more snowy owls after the breeding season (the young are all grown up by the end of the summer), the snowy owl population is spread out as well. They don’t like to be crowded or to be in direct competition with another owl for the same food source.
Some will stay in the tundra or live along the coastlines in the far north (some even move farther north to follow ice flows and feed on sea ducks). But some will head south, especially in years when a lot of snowy owls were born that summer. In these cases, snowy owls will be migrating through the fall and by December/January find a winter territory to stay on for a while (they may move territories as well). Winter territories that are in the lower 48 states tend to mimic to some degree their tundra homeland. Those being open fields with healthy small mammal populations (like hay fields or pasture land with lots of nice edge scrub habitat; less often soy or cornfields). They also like to follow shorelines and are often found near dune habitat and other wide shoreline areas.
Are there reliable towns/regions where we should watch for them?
In Michigan, the highest number of snowy owls recorded on a single day comes from the Eastern U.P. region of Chippewa and small parts of Mackinac counties. The areas south of Sault Ste Marie including Sault Township, Rudyard and Pickford are areas where dozens of snowy owls set up territories and are often found throughout the winter. Even in years when not many snowy owls migrate south, there is still usually a small number to be found on the Rudyard Loop (M-48, Hantz Road, Centerline Road). As an added bonus to birders of the EUP, more rare owls like the great gray owl and northern hawk owl have been known to show up in some winters, along with large numbers of winter finches like red crossbill or pine grosbeak. The EUP is known as one of the prime winter birding destinations in the Midwest.
With that being said Fish Point and the Saginaw Bay area is also known as a really amazing place for snowy owls, especially in the last five years since the major snowy owl irruption occurred [more on that below].
Snowy owls have been far more numerous in the winter months in the last seven years or so with sightings being regular in all of the coastal counties in Michigan. The Great Lakes coastline seems to be an area they move along and sometimes spend the winter on. In addition, farm fields and even airports are common places to find them. In fact, in more urban areas like Grand Rapids or Ann Arbor, the local airports are known as snowy owl hotspots. Unfortunately, large raptors at airports can cause conflicts (as can any large bird such as the Canada goose). USDA Wildlife Services works diligently across Michigan to try to relocate these large creatures.
Every county in Michigan has had at least one confirmed snowy owl sighting over the past few decades.
Snowy owls are active during the day. Unusual for an owl, right?
Snowy owls are primarily diurnal owls. This means they are active during daylight hours. They tend to be most active hunting and moving around at dawn and dusk. During midday, they are often perched on a telephone pole, fence post, barn or tree in a field digesting their food or napping. Snowy owls often spend large amounts of time on the ground in midday eating or digesting and napping. Since they blend in so well this is a tactic they use to stay safe and take a break. If you see a snowy owl on the ground for a large portion of the day don’t be concerned, this is normal behavior. Although they are mainly diurnal, they are still fit with adaptations that make them somewhat successful at night and they can be seen occasionally moving around in the dark, particularly in the hour before or after sunrise/set.
Where else are snowy owls spotted in the winter?
In general, Wisconsin, Minnesota, all of Michigan, the New England coastline and near the border of Canada in North Dakota and Montana are all places where a few snowy owls are found in most years. In the past five-plus years, hundreds have been present. Their primary winter grounds are in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario as well as the Maritime provinces, the West Coast provinces and the southern Alaskan coastline.
Here’s an accurate North American-specific map: allaboutbirds.org/guide/Snowy_Owl/maps-range
The number of snowy owls in Michigan varies from year to year. What affects this?
Snowy owls are prone to a phenomenon in the natural world called irruptions. Irruptive events are times when a species of animal tend to show up in numbers, or in locations, that are not seen in a typical year. When snowy owls irrupt, they tend to be found in the lower 48 states in much larger numbers than in a typical year. In addition, in a big irruptive year, snowy owls will be found farther south. In the winter of 2013/2014, we had one of the most massive irruptive events on record, with huge numbers in the North East and Great Lakes area. In fact, that winter, single snowy owls were seen as far south as Florida, the Gulf Coast and one even made it Bermuda!
Snowy owls seem to irrupt when there is a particularly large source of food in the summer months, leading to a very successful breeding season with lots of young making it through the end of the summer as fledged adults. These years when lemming populations are extra high in the summer lead to lots of extra snowy owls surviving to the end of summer and a larger dispersal of all of those owls farther south in the winter. There is still lots to learn about when and why snowy owls irrupt. In general, they are an understudied species with many mysteries to be learned still.
Project Snowstorm is placing geolocators on snowy owls that keep their GPS location and transmit it to cell towers when in range. We are learning a lot more about snowy owl movement through this project.
Any predictions for the number of snowy owls we’ll have this winter?
Since the major irruptive event of 2013/2014, snowy owls have been more numerous in the Great Lakes region and in Michigan. There may have been additional super successful breeding summers in 2014 and 2017 that are keeping the numbers high. Although 2013/2014 and 2017/2018 were banner years for Michigan, the number of snowy owls have stayed higher, especially in the EUP and Saginaw Bay region as well as the Grand Traverse Bay region. Most likely Michigan will continue to be a good place to find snowy owls in decent numbers this winter. The first one of the year was already seen at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory on November 1!
What’s the population of snowy owls worldwide? Are they endangered?
Snowy owls are found circumpolar, meaning they also nest in the tundra in the far north of Europe and Asia. The estimates of populations are very difficult to get given they nest in the Arctic, a generally inaccessible area. With that said, rough estimates are available (but should be read with the knowledge that they can have errors). The North American population is estimated at 72,500, though another estimate from 2013 estimates North America at around 100,000 birds and the global population at 200,000. These again are rough estimates.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the snowy owl as probably not globally threatened (least concern). However, the thawing of the tundra could present major challenges as Earth continues to warm. Climate change could ultimately cause major threats. Also, the survival rate of young raptors, including snowy owls can be quite low. In particular, in the lower 48 states, many birds die each winter from car collisions, powerline collisions and eating rodents that have ingested rodenticides (poisons sold at every major grocery store or hardware store designed to kill rodents). Folks should really try to never use those unless absolutely necessary as they kill not only the rodent but also anything that eats the rodent, like hawks, snowy owls and foxes.
BirdLife International more recently listed snowy owls as vulnerable mainly due to their estimates of population decline related to climate change.
Snowy owls don’t see many humans in the Arctic. Does that make it especially important to maintain a respectful distance?
They are in no way tame, and do flush when approached, although they may not fly until you are very close if they are on the ground trying to blend in. Never approach a snowy owl. Always give it space. If you flush it, that causes the bird to use extra calories it may not have otherwise. It might also disrupt it’s hunting and feeding. If you see one near a road, stay in your car as the car tends to act as a blind and they are less likely to flush if you slowly drive past. If you care about the bird, enjoy it from a distance and watch with binoculars or a scope.
Can you recommend some good resources for people who want to learn more?
- Project SnowStorm
- All About Birds
- Birds of the World (More technical and a paid service. However free through most university libraries and many Michigan libraries.)
- Michigan Map of Snowy Owl Sightings in Winter 2019-2020 (Zoom in to see individual points and click on them to see the eBird checklist. You’ll need to create an account.)
- Map of all Snowy Owl sightings on eBird (A tool that has been used by birders a lot in the last 5 years, but was not used as frequently before that, so sightings from the last 5 years are somewhat comprehensive, but not as much before that. You’ll need to create an account.)