KANSAS CITY Mo -- Bald eagles, snowy owls and a chance to get outdoors on unseasonably warm winter days drew 3,000 visitors Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 7 and 8, to Eagle Days events at Smithville Lake.
A rare appearance by snowy owls at the lake helped draw a record crowd for the annual event, said Derek Dorsey, park manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The tundra-dwelling owls migrated farther south than normal this winter across the Midwest with three being spotted regularly at the lake.
Volunteers from the Osage Trails Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalist program set up spotting scopes at locations where the owls were resting. On Saturday, a snowy owl took a nap while sitting on the rock rip rap on the lake’s dam. Visitors on Sunday saw that owl plus one on a jetty and another snowy owl that perched atop a marina at the Little Platte Park.
The owls seem to be attracted to the open areas at lakes where they can hunt, said Mike Watkins, a wildlife biologist for the Corps.
“We didn’t have many eagles, so it was nice having the owls and they’re even more rare,” Watkins said.
It’s uncertain how long the owls will remain. Many snowy owls that migrate this far south do not live to make a return trip north, as they are hunting and living in unfamiliar conditions. A lack of food in their northern haunts has driven them south. Owl watchers are urged to look from a distance and not disturb them.
Warm winter temperatures may be keeping snow geese and bald eagle numbers down at the lake. Only five eagles were counted there recently. Wild eagle sightings were scarce on Saturday, but bald eagles were seen on Sunday in the lake’s winter waterfowl refuge north of the Route W bridge.
Indoors, though, visitors packed into the Paradise Pointe Golf Course clubhouse meeting room for captive eagle programs presented by Operation Wildlife staffers with an assist from Watkins. There were also captive owls and other wildlife displays by non-profit conservation groups such as the Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary at Liberty.
Eagle Days at the lake was sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Clay County Parks and Recreation Department.