This is a winter of snowy owls

by Christina Nealson

It took only two hours for me to reach the apparent miracle that was occurring near Flathead Lake in Polson, Mont.: Snowy owls had turned up here after flying all the way from the Arctic, and everybody in the town of about 4,000 seemed to know about it.

I'd never seen these spectacular, two-foot-tall birds, which can boast a wingspan of up to five feet, but I'd always wanted to, and here was my chance. A fellow birder pointed the way, and suddenly, there they were, looking like ghost owls assembled on the subdivision rooftops.

Twelve white sentinels broke the skyline like fluffy chimneys, their unlikely perch points on sunny shingles commanding a 360-degree view. There was the expansive Flathead Lake to the north and tundra-like hunting fields below. The birds' beauty and foreign presence were breathtaking.

When a bevy of birds flies far south like this it's called an "irruption," a sudden, unpredictable mass movement of individuals into an area where they're uncommon. The last irruption of snowy owls to Polson occurred in 2005-'06; that time they wintered about a mile from this subdivision, laying claim to fence posts and old farm machinery.

Irruptions are usually regional, occurring in the Northwestern United States, the Northeast, or in areas of British Columbia, but this year has been unprecedented. Thousands of owls have detoured south from coast to coast; they've been seen in Seattle, Vancouver, Kansas, the Ohio River Valley, Boston, South Dakota, and even in the fields north of Denver International Airport.

This migration is exciting the nation, as people who don't usually travel to see birds load up the children and drive miles to see the majestic white owls. One man told me, "I'm a bow-hunter not a birdwatcher, but I wanted to see these birds with my boy." Here's a thought: It's the rare child who isn't familiar with Harry Potter's own snowy owl, Hedwig.

A few miles south of Polson, in the Mission Valley, is the small but mighty Ninepipes Owl Research Institute, home to Denver Holt, a man who has studied snowy owls for over 25 years. Some scientists believe this irruption was caused by a crash in the lemming population -- lemmings constitute 90 percent of the snowy owls' diet. But others believe that the opposite is true: that an overpopulation of lemmings resulted in too many owls --five to seven owlets hatching at once as opposed to the usual zero to two -- and that the resulting overpopulation pushed the birds out of the Arctic in search of winter food supplies.

"It's all speculation," says Holt. "No one knows that the lemming population crashed. We do know they (owls) are showing up healthy, not stressed and uninjured. Holt believes that good feeding leads to good breeding, and between the lake and the tundra-like fields, the birds above Polson have a ready supply of mice, voles, ducks, hares and fish. And, I would think, the occasional housecat.

The birds this day were roosting in the sun on patches of crusty roof snow. They are one of the few diurnal owls, active in the day, and the largest owl by weight, with the female adult weighing up to six pounds. A hunting bird can reach speeds of 69 mph; a female defending her chicks will launch like a stealth bomber from a half-mile away and strike at 25 mph, tearing through cotton layers and down jackets and into flesh with ease. Wolves don't faze them. Oglala Sioux warriors who excelled in battle wore caps of snowy owl feathers.

The owls appear in cave art from 10,000 years ago, and you could say that they continue to live on in the deep recesses of our reptilian brain. Their ghostly white feathers may have something to do with our fascination, as white symbolizes innocence, purity, spiritual power - and, in some cultures, death. Depending on where you go in their polar world, the bird is known as the ermine owl, tundra ghost, Scandinavian night bird, white terror of the North or Ookpik.

Denver Holt says the scope of this nationwide irruption makes it the greatest wildlife event in many years. After the birds showed up in 1966, he recalls, you couldn't walk into a farmhouse without seeing a snowy owl - dead and stuffed. Now, people vie to be part of the mystery, capturing the owls not with guns, but with eyes and cameras. As for the owls I watched in Polson, the birds always seemed to be scanning the fields beyond, their dazzling yellow eyes never missing a move. I count my blessings that I got to be in their presence.

Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Libby, Montana.

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