At the beginning of January, we experienced an old-time winter, with deep snow cover on the ground and frigid daytime temperatures. On one such afternoon, we were traveling along Route 14, just south of Troy, when my wife, Mary Alice, mentioned that the countryside looked like a winter wonderland.
Her next sentence was, "Wouldn't it be neat to see a snowy owl?"
We had only traveled about a mile when I yelled, "There is one!"
PHOTO COURTESY OF Scott Crandell
This snowy owl is perched atop a utility pole in the Mifflinburg area.
However, the owl turned out to be a small pile of leaves covered with snow. In my defense, the snow at the top was shaped like the round head of a snowy owl.
While watching television that evening, we heard there has been an irruption of snowy owls coming down from the far north. An irruption, which is different than a migration, is a large-scale irregular migration of larger than usual numbers of predatory birds.
This occurs about every four years and is linked to the low population of lemmings on which the snowy owls feed. Records that go back to 1833 show that irruptions of snowy owls occur into the United States at about four-year intervals.
In an old Game News from February 1951, I read in an article that here in the northeast United States, we have had a marked invasion of snowy owls in 1926, 1930, 1934, 1937, 1941, 1945 and 1949. By using this formula, an invasion of these majestic white birds should be seen during late December, January and February of 2013-14.
The snowy owl is unique among owls in that it hunts during daylight hours and not at night, with its peak feeding time at dusk and dawn.
The owl is well suited for the snowy tundra because the overall plumage of the adult male is pure white, with three tail bands, which enables it to blend into the snowy background.
The females and juveniles are more heavily marked with brown so they can blend in with the rocks and melting snow surrounding the nest. The female is slightly larger than the male.
Most of the snowy owl's hunting is done by sitting and waiting and, since there are no trees, this waiting usually is done from a pingaluk, which is a rise in the tundra.
Although the snowy owl probably is the most well known of birds that make irruptions, there are 13 other species that also make these trips. Evening grosbeaks have made irruptions so often that they almost have become regular visitors from the north.
The eastward and southward movements of evening grosbeaks have been attributed to high populations and the failure (about every two years) of spruce, pines and other coniferous trees in the north, on which the grosbeaks mainly depend on for their food.
Another type of migration occurs with the male population of waterfowl. All waterfowl migrate, and it is believed that most return to the same area where they were born to mate and raise their young.
Many ducks that winter in the southern United States will pair up before the northward migrationbegins. Instead of flying northward to the areas where they were hatched, the males that pair up with females on their wintering grounds will accompany the females back to the area where the females were born to raise their young. This type of migration is known as an abmigration, a migration that is peculiar to certain male ducks.
The squirrel is an animal that has irruptions. Every so often, a phenomenon occurs when the squirrel population has a mass movement. These squirrel irruptions, which are not as famous as those of the lemmings of the far north, are accompanied by widespread damage of farmlands as large numbers of squirrels pass through.
In 1842, an estimated 500 million squirrels swept across southern Wisconsin. In 1933, thousands of squirrels in Connecticut fled by swimming across the Hudson River to New York.
In 1958, the squirrels in Minnesota left after an acorn crop failure.
Perhaps some readers remember back in 1968 when 20 million squirrels were on the move along the east coast from Vermont to Georgia. This movement was so great that The Center for the Study of Short Lived Phenomena (an organization that investigates unusual events) investigated the squirrel movement; however, it was unable to come up with an explanation for the squirrel irruption.
Be sure to keep on the lookout for a snowy owl while they are visiting us from the far north. You might see one sitting on a pole just as Scott Crandell, of Mifflinburg, did.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.