Date: 1/7/18 9:15 am
From: Chuck & Jaye Otte <otte2...>
Subject: Additional Snowy Owl musings
Mark and Bob were talking about Snowy Owls, which seems to be a very
popular topic now days.

I decided to get a hot cup of coffee and pulled up the Birds of North America
(BNA) online account for Snowy Owl. I last read this in early 2012 during that
big irruption and was pleased to see that it had been recently updated with
new findings from the 2011-12 irruption and was surprised to see the
Robbins & Otte article that was in the KOS Bulletin referenced. It's nice to
know that researchers do read the KOS Bulletin.

One of the things that the BNA account pointed out was that there is a lot we
don't know about Snowy Owl behavior. The BNA account did indicate that a
vast majority (probably 80% or better) of the birds that move far south in
irruption years are hatch year birds, i.e. they are less than one year old. But it
also pointed out that every irruption is different.

It also talked about how much variation there is in plumage of Snowy Owls.
Reserachers can't agree on how old Snowy Owls are when they achieve
"definitive basic plumage". It is felt that it may take females 4 - 5 years to
reach this and males may take 8 to 10 years to get there. Again, so much
work is needed on wild birds. Most of the molt occurs in late summer so
when birds reach Kansas in early to mid winter they should still be in fairly
fresh plumage. Males of the same age are always much whiter than females
of the same age. In looking at some of the photos this year I'm not so sure
that some of the photos of Kansas birds that were clearly males that I
thought might be second year birds aren't in fact hatch year birds. There are
so many subtleties that need to be examined in photos of these birds and
unfortunatley the preferred photographers pose - frontal - is likely the worst
for age/sex determination.

Bob, and others, mentioned and speculated on movements of the wintering
Snowies. Again, there are generalizations made by researchers that need
more observations and research, and there seem to be as many exceptions
as observations. It is generally felt that females are more likely to set up
breeding territories and defend them against other Snowies than are males.
Males were often felt to be somewhere for a few days, less than a week, and
then move on. Of course, my caveat to that is that we are usually viewing
from roadsides that occur once every mile. Even though Snowy Owls are one
of our biggest owls, if they are in the middle of a section, a half mile away, it
doesn't take much of a change in topography to hide them. Additionally,
many of the birds that get as far south as Kansas, likely do not survive. If a
Snowy Owl dies in the middle of a tall grass praire, or even in the middle of
fields with crop stubble on it, the carcass is likely never to be found. In
2011-12 Mark and I often felt that if observations were more than 2 miles
apart they are likely different birds. This seems to match up pretty well with
researchers who noted maximum size for winter feeding territories was
around two square kilometers, depending of course on food availability.

Snowy Owls are inherently nomadic - that is one thing that all researchers
agree on. Which makes it difficult to track them and even to obtain good
population estimates. Overall survival rates from fledglings to second year
birds is hard to obtain because they may not return to their natal range the
second year. I think that some of Bob's musings are on target. I think many
of the birds that make it to Kansas are never seen or reported. Many
farmers/ranchers may see them and while they know it's not common to see,
unless they know a birder, may never report them. Likely some of the birds
are reported more than once as they move around. But with as many photos
as we are now obtaining, we can sometimes know definitively that there are
different birds in a locality. But bottom line, we just don't know.

During and after the 2011-12 irruption, Mark Robbins and I caught a fair
amount of flak from people who didn't want to believe that many of these
birds died and never returned north. I think our paper showed that a great
number of the birds that were salvaged were in very poor physical condition.
This year quite a few people again were questioning our statements because
of releases from Project SNOWstorm saying that most of the birds were in
fine condition. Project SNOWstorm has done some great work and greatly
added to the knowledge about Snowy Owls. BUT, it is important to keep in
mind that most of their work and data are about owls that reach the very
northern Continental US, a location where they are basically expected
annually. I have no doubt that the information is accurate for those birds. But
once the birds have moved as far south as Kansas, I think their physical
condition has deteriorated significantly. If you haven't read the paper that was
published in the KOS Bulletin I would encourage you to do so. It can be
accessed at: http://www.ksbirds.org/kos/bulletin/Vol64No4.pdf

Last week I read a blog by a birder on the east coast who referred to Snowy
Owls as the Holy Grail bird for bird watchers. I don't know if I agree with that
but I do understand the attraction to them especially if you've never seen one
before. I do think some people pursue them excessively once they do find
them trying to get a better view or a better photo. In fact they've had to
restrict access this winter at some locations along the Atlantic Coastal area
due to unethical behavior that resulted in basic harassment of the owls. I
hope none of that is occurring in Kansas.

After the irruption of 2011-12 I didn't expect to see anything like that for a
long time. This year's irruption is not to that level, yet (but hey, there's a lot of
winter left), but it is certainly noteworthy. Somebody recently asked me why
so many of the sightings were near roads and I had to stop and see if they
were serious. When I saw that they were I just responded, well that's where
the people are! Past irruptions lasted until very late March early April. There's
a lot of winter left so keep your eyes open as you're traveling down the
roadways!

I am maintaining a website with a map that shows what counties Snowy Owls
have been seen this year. It is at: http://ksbirds.org/KS_SNOW_2017_18.htm
If you have a first hand sighting of a Snowy Owl in a county not shaded
green, or you don't think has been reported, please send me the date and
location (and photo if you happened to have gotten one) as I am once again
trying to maintain a database with sightings.

Enjoy the birds!
Chuck



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785-238-8800

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