Michigan bird watchers get elusive glimpse of snowy owl

Record-Eagle file photo/Jan-Michael StumpA snowy owl sits atop a pile of snow in the parking lot of Traverse City Central High School. Last winter was exceptional for snowy owl flights in the Great Lakes region. The flight isn’t nearly as large this winter, but it is still a little bigger than average, birders say.

LANSING — Every winter lucky Michigan residents might catch a glimpse of the yellow, catlike eyes and milky down of the snowy owl.

And such a glimpse could go a long way.

That’s because Project SNOWstorm — a crew of scientists, bird banders and wildlife veterinarians — needs those sightings for research on the Arctic raptor’s mysterious migration patterns.

“Until recently, we arguably knew more about the ecology and behavior of snowy owls in their remote breeding grounds in the Arctic than we did about how they live when they’re down here in the northern U.S. and southern Canada in winter,” says Scott Weidensaul, co-founder of Project SNOWstorm, which is based at the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in central Pennsylvania. “Many scientists assumed these were lost, starving birds driven south by hunger and doomed to die — and who wanted to study doomed birds?

“In fact, the vast majority of snowy owls that come south are healthy and survive to migrate back north in the springtime,” he said.

Project SNOWstorm runs on volunteered time, said Weidensaul, who also directs the Ned Smith Center’s owl-banding project. That’s why every reported owl sighting bolsters the project.

The owls sometimes flock southward in massive invasions called irruptions, said Kenn Kaufman, a birder and prolific author from Oak Harbor, Ohio.

“Last winter was really exceptional in the Great Lakes region,” Kaufman said. “This winter, the season of 2018-2019, the flight isn’t nearly as large, but it’s still a little bigger than average. The recent big flights have occurred after the snowy owls had a very successful nesting season in parts of the Arctic, raising lots of young, which usually happens when lemmings or other small prey are at peak numbers.”

So how do you get that elusive glimpse this winter?

Try the project’s website, www.projectsnowstorm.org, where you can access interactive maps tracking the more than 75 owls the project has tagged over the past five years. Or check out eBird, the bird-distribution dataset from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where you can submit your sightings for Project SNOWstorm’s benefit.

And there is a Michigan Snowy Owl Watchers Facebook page, where you can report sightings, post photos and learn of likely spots to see one of the birds.

Birders must take caution, the experts say.

“Watch from a respectful distance, but don’t flush, and for sure don’t feed,” Weidensaul says.

Kaufman agrees.

“If people try to bait them, the owls will learn to associate humans with food, and inevitably they’ll be in danger,” Kaufman said. “Here in the Great Lakes region we are blessed to have the opportunity to see snowy owls, and we have a responsibility to enjoy them from a respectful distance.”

Hibernating for the rest of the winter? You can still support Project SNOWstorm by donating at https://www.gofundme.com/project-snowstorm?member=1137792.