We all know that a lot of birds migrate south in the winter. Doves and teal are generally the first to go. Waterfowl migrate south as soon as water in the northern prairies freeze and snow covers food sources in corn and wheat fields. Eagles follow the waterfowl. There is one more species of bird that moves south when they can no longer find food in their spring/summer haunts, but it is a bit more rare in Nebraska. It is the snowy owl.
Bird watching is currently the second most popular outdoor activity in the U.S. If you enjoy that you may want to keep your eyes open. Snowy owls have come down from the high arctic and are now in Nebraska.
The snowy owl may be the perfect symbol for icy places. These birds live their lives on the tundra. It breeds and raises its young in one of the coldest climates on earth. Their primary food source is lemmings, lots of lemmings. One report I found said that snowy owls may eat upwards of 1600 lemmings in their lifetime…three to five per day. They supplement their diets with other small rodents and rabbits.
Biologists have long believed that snowy owls only move south when their regular food sources are not available. With all of the recent snow, and deep snow, it probably means they can’t see or hear their normal food sources.
This winter, many snowy owls are showing up across the country. For those snowy owls arriving in Nebraska, I don’t think they will have any problems. There are plenty of wide open wind swept spaces yet in Nebraska. Nebraska prairies are quite similar to their home range and there is no shortage of rodents and rabbits for them to find.
The snowy owl is also known by the names Arctic Owl, Great White Owl and Harfang. Owls, regardless of which species, always draw the attention of both serious bird-watchers and casual observers, especially those who are fans of the Harry Potter books and movies. Potter has a pet snowy owl named, Hedwig.
According to recent news releases from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, there have been sightings of snowy owls recorded in Nebraska. At least a couple of these birds have taken up temporary residence near my home.
Both of the birds I’ve seen have been in the timber along the Platte River. Another bird, possibly a third snowy owl, has been using one of the large Interstate exit lights in the central part of the state. The owl seems to be using this “high point” as a hunting perch because the Platte River is very close.
Snowy owls have incredible vision. They can see a field mouse from 1000 feet up and gracefully dive down and to silently capture their prey. Owls are known for their night vision, but due to where snowy owls live, they have evolved to become diurnal have excellent day and night vision. Remember, where they normally live, the sun never sets for months at a time!
It is not unusual to find snowy owls near water. This is why I think the one owl uses the Interstate light pole. There are small wetlands adjoining the Platte River that may be a mere 600 feet away. If they can’t find a small rodent, snowy owls will take a small duck or a fish. They are opportunists like many other predators.
If you do go out to look for one of these birds, drive rural roads near open, short grass fields or near open water. A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope is almost essential. If you are trying to take a picture, I think the minimum lens you need should be in the 400mm range. Let me know if you see one of the regal birds in the area.