October 23, 2014

Medina
Mostly cloudy
44°F

Hundreds of snowy owl sightings reported in state

For many nature lovers and birdwatchers, the rare influx of snowy owls into Ohio this year is a stunning occurrence.

“It’s been just outstanding,” Jamey Emmert, of the wildlife division of The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said about large numbers of snowy owl sightings reported this winter.

Snowy owls are northern-born and typically reside in areas such as Northern Canada and the tundra of Siberia, occasionally traveling south in the winter to search for food.

A snowy owl flies at Spitzer Marina in Lorain. The species has been drawing watchers to Lake Erie for a glimpse of the bird, a rarity in Ohio. Bird watchers and photographers from all over the state have been converging to see the snowy owls that have been seen in the area. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY BRUCE BISHOP)

A snowy owl flies at Spitzer Marina in Lorain. The species has been drawing watchers to Lake Erie for a glimpse of the bird, a rarity in Ohio. Bird watchers and photographers from all over the state have been converging to see the snowy owls that have been seen in the area. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY BRUCE BISHOP)

According to Emmert, only a few snowy owl sightings are reported in Ohio each year.

However, since late November, the number of sightings has increased from the norm. So far, 124 different owls have been reported in the state.

It is largely because of this phenomenon that birdwatchers and photographers from across the state flocked this week to Lake Erie, where most of the sightings have been reported.

Dave Liggett, a photographer from Columbus, said he heard about the sightings online and immediately drove to the lake shore, hoping to get a glimpse of the bird.

“Within 10 minutes of being here, I saw my first snowy owl,” Liggett said. “It’s a rare thing for Ohio.”

Other birdwatchers didn’t have Liggett’s initial luck.

Former school teacher and budding photographer Trish Hopkins said she went to multiple spots around Lake Erie before her efforts were rewarded with a sighting and a photo.

“Just looking into the owl’s eyes … it’s quite a spiritual experience for me,” Hopkins said.

While the mass migration is exciting for biologist Jim McCormac, he can explain the phenomenon by looking at the birds’ feeding patterns.

“Snowy owls are an irruptive species,” McCormac said, meaning the population is known to increase abruptly in size. He added that every four years, the number of lemmings — snowy owls’ main source of food in the north — increases in the summer and drastically decreases in the winter. When this happens, the owls will travel farther south than usual in the winter in search of more food. The result is a larger number of snowy owl sightings in northern Ohio and along the East Coast.

The owls will often stay around bodies of water to hunt ducks, McCormac said.

The sheer number of owl sightings — which has been increasing since November — most likely will continue to bring in bird-lovers until the owls migrate north again in the spring, according to McCormac.

“People love rarities,” he said.

Contact Anna Merriman at 329-7245 or amerriman@chroniclet.com.