KANSAS CITY Mo - Snowy owls from the Arctic tundra are being spotted in the Midwest this winter in uncommonly large numbers, including three at Smithville Lake in the Kansas City area.
The large, white owls with black markings are rarely seen in this area and only when their winter food supply is short in their natural habitats to the north. A single snowy owl in the region is big news to birders.
But bird watchers in recent weeks have watched and photographed three snowy owls in the Smithville Lake area. One was spotted earlier this winter at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge and at the Nodaway Valley Conservation Area. At least eight have been seen in Kansas and several in Iowa, said Mark Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas who also does bird studies in Missouri.
“This clearly is a huge movement compared to some years,” Robbins said.
Food shortages in the tundra are likely the cause, he said. Snowy owls feed on lemmings in the tundra. They rarely appear as far south as Missouri and when they do it’s because lemming populations have crashed and they’re forced to move south to look for food, Robbins said. Lemming populations rise and fall in three- to five-year cycles.
Even during down years for lemmings, though, it’s unusual to see several snowy owls in one area this far south. Missouri is on the southern edge of their winter range.
The three snowy owls at Smithville Lake have been seen most often in the Little Platte Park area north of Smithville. A Christmas Bird Count for the National Audubon Society was conducted at the lake on Saturday and the three snowy owls were all spotted and include in the tally, said Linda Williams of Liberty. Williams is a birder and a member of the Osage Trails Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalist Program sponsored by MDC.
There were 89 species of birds noted in Saturday’s count at the lake, Williams said. But the snowy owls were the most unusual. Three in one general area could be a record number for one day’s count in the Kansas City area.
Anyone taking a digital photo of a snowy owl is welcome to send pictures to Robbins via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. If possible, take close photographs of the back, the nape and the back of the head, and the tail. With good photos, Robbins is able to identify the sex and age of a snowy owl. Also send information on when and where the owl was spotted.
Unfortunately, most owls that make it this far south during winters do not survive to make a return to the tundra in spring, Robbins said. Some are already starved and too weak. They are used to a solitary life on the tundra with few humans and other natural predators, and they are not used to avoiding automobile traffic. The owls are also not accustomed to hunting prey in this ecosystem. Studies have shown survival is especially poor among the young snowy owls.
Anyone finding a dead snowy owl is asked to contact their local conservation agent.