LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC) — Turns out the polar vortex isn’t the only thing from the top of the globe that invaded the U.S. this year.
Snowy owls, the majestic white birds that spend their summers in the Arctic, have flown south in record numbers this year, according to naturalist Scott Weidensaul.
He is one of the collaborators on Project SNOWstorm, a research group that formed this winter in an attempt to take advantage of the owl influx.
The goal of the project is “to better understand, and ultimately conserve, this spectacular visitor from the north,” according to its website. Scientists are accomplishing this by capturing owls and fitting them with lightweight, solar-powered transmitters that help track them and give insight to their habits.
Project SNOWstorm has gotten the bulk of its funding through crowdfunding.
“Nobody knew this was coming, that’s the amazing thing about it,” Weidensaul says. “The magnitude of the irruption this year took everyone by surprise.”
People started to realize that something unusual was occurring in late November, when birdwatchers in Newfoundland reported seeing large concentrations of snowy owls. Then a surge was noticed on a popular birdwatching database, as well.
About a month ago, Weidensaul and David Brinker, an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, took notice.
“It rapidly became clear that this is the largest irruption that we’re likely to see in our lifetime,” Weidensaul said.
It wasn’t long before they hatched the idea for Snow Storm.
And, speaking of hatching, that’s the whole reason behind the mass migration. One of the snowy owl’s favorite foods is the lemming and this year “was like the year to end all years for lemmings in northern Quebec,” Weidensaul says.
In a normal breeding season, a female owl will lay up to eight eggs, but there isn’t enough food available to feed all the babies. As a result, hatchlings tend to cannibalize their smaller siblings. This year, scientists think there was enough food so that most babies in every nest survived.
In other words, there was a “massive, massive production of young owls this year.”
The irruption isn’t just a treat for scientists, either.
Weidensaul suggests that everyone who is interested “get out and see a snowy owl.”
“This is going to be the best chance they have in their lifetime… and if you see one in the wild, it is something you will remember for the rest of your life.”
He says the birds will start heading back north in March or April.
To see where owls have been spotted in your area, visit eBird.org.