Outdoors: Bird count runs through Jan. 5
If you’re a bird lover, you may know that Dec. 14 was the start of the 118th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count that runs until Jan. 5. The count is one of the longest-running citizen science projects in the country and world. It provides important data for scientists but it’s a great time for folks to participate and collect the number of birds and species in wintering locations in the country.
While doing these counts, birders may be privy to seeing snowy owls. A recent press release from the Audubon Society, is alerting birders to Project Snowstorm, which is data predicting a big irruption of snowy owls across the continental U.S. this year.
According to the Audubon Society, four years ago thousands of snowy owls stormed the northern United States, taking up posts in surroundings drastically different from the flat Arctic tundra over which they typically live. Some whittled away the hours, peering at dog walkers from suburban fences; one learned to hunt around a Minnesota brewery with mouse problems. In a typical winter, around 10 snowies visited Pennsylvania but in 2013 the state was graced with 400. They were part of the largest snowy owl irruption, or influx of a species into a place they don’t usually live. And there are some telltale signs that the birds are on their way, according to Scott Weidensaul, one of the directors of Project Snowstorm who is a Pennsylvania resident and avid birder and birding book author.
The migration occurs about once every four years, says Audubon, and that’s because lemmings, their preferred prey and primary food source, go through regional populations explosions at about the same interval. In 2013, those little Arctic rodents had a banner year on the Ungava Peninsula in Northern Quebec, and had a successful breeding season for the owls to flock to that area.
Weidensaul commented that a coupe hundred have flocked to the Northeast and Upper Midwest so far. And single birds have been spotted as far south as Oklahoma, Missouri and North Carolina. And their numbers are building faster than they did in 2013.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission noted that birders reported snowy owls in at least 44 Pennsylvania counties by mid-March in 2014. They were primarily in agricultural areas of southeastern counties (especially Lancaster and Lebanon), the Erie beaches and open farmland of Montour and Northumberland counties. The PGC says it’s unfortunate that these white owls are also attracted to airports with their expansive short grass and handy perch points. In this regard, a protected snowy owl was legally shot at the Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, WI. It was reported by The Northwestern newspaper that the bird was sitting near the runway as a plane was taxiing off the active runway and on a taxiway sign. As the pilots were putting the plane into the hanger they heard the shot.
Airport Director Peter Moll said the airport has a permit that allows them to take such steps to remove such birds as a measure to prevent bird strikes by airplanes. But added it was a rare occurrence in this case and they didn’t have time to trap it and did try to scare it away before it had to be shot.
It was a shame, but I recall a pilot friend who hit a deer upon landing at Allentown’s Queen City Airport and it badly damaged the plane. If it had happened during takeoff, the consequences could have been fatal to him and his co-pilot.
So birders, get ready. Have your binoculars and cameras handy and look out for these beautiful white migrating owls that with snow on the ground, may be hard to see.