By Bill Bossman
Many humans do not consider the northern prairies to be an ideal winter destination. Those snowbirds travel to places like Arizona or Texas when faced with the first wintry blast of autumn. Last year, however, hundreds of visitors from the far north found the treeless plains of North Dakota and South Dakota to be a great place to spend the winter. And it looks like these visitors—which could also be called snowbirds—could come back this winter as well.
Adorned in feathers as white as snow, snowy owls grace the winter landscape of the northern plains in small numbers every year. These visitors from the icy tundra breed in the arctic where their principal food is a small rodent known as the lemming. Abundant lemming populations in the summer of 2011 allowed snowy owls to raise more young than in other years. By autumn most of the easy food sources were exhausted, resulting in snowy owls moving south into the United States in numbers that were unprecedented. Avid birdwatchers might accumulate a dozen snowy owl sightings in their lifetimes. Last winter, even casual observers could sometimes see more than a dozen snowy owls in a single day!
Will snowy owls return this winter in the same unbelievable numbers? Probably not. The winter of 2011-12 was one for the record books. However, there have been several sightings of these arctic hunters in our region so far this season, and more are likely to follow.
If you want to find snowy owls, drive out into rural areas with few trees. Look for them on utility poles, fence posts, road signs or hay bales. Consider taking a youngster or two with you; if they are Harry Potter fans, you can tell them you are on a quest to find Hedwig, the snowy owl featured in those books and movies. It’s a fine opportunity to get young people interested in birding.
The majestic snowy owl is an exotic and mysterious part of our winter landscape, and well worth the effort to find.
Bill Bossman is a birdwatcher from Pierre, S.D., and works as a tribal court prosecutor for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. You can follow his birding blog at www.askthebirds.org.
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