BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Four winters ago, a snowy owl incursion pleased mid-Atlantic bird watchers to no end. And it could happen again this year, experts say.
People started to realize that something unusual was occurring in late November 2013, when birdwatchers in Newfoundland reported seeing large concentrations of snowy owls. Then a surge was noticed on a popular birdwatching database, as well.
The influx was so large that a research group, Project SNOWstorm, formed in an attempt to take advantage of it.
Pennsylvania-based naturalist Scott Weidensaul and David Brinker, an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, came up with the idea for the project.
They said the mass migration likely occurred because of an abundance of food. In a normal breeding season, a female owl will lay up to eight eggs, but there isn’t enough food available to feed all the babies. As a result, hatchlings tend to cannibalize their smaller siblings. That year, though, scientists think there was enough food so that most babies in every nest survived.
Reported sightings were off the charts. According to Audobon.org, around 10 snowy owls visit Pennsylvania in a typical year. In 2013, there were 400.
And it already looks like this winter may be another above-average year, according to the Project SNOWstorm website.
“…there have already been an unusually large number of snowy owls reported in the Great Plains, Midwest and Northeast, some as far south as Oklahoma and Virginia,” it says. “It looks like a very exciting winter lies ahead.”
According to the Harford County-based Susquehannock Wildlife Society, a few have already been seen in Maryland this month.
And Audobon.org reports that, although data is “sketchy and variable,” “it appears that big southward movements occur about once every four years.”
And Dr. Jean-François Therrien, senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania and Project SNOWstorm team member says:
“I’ve said this over and over again: snowy owls have a tendency to surprise us. We’ll have to wait and see how many birds show up at our latitudes, but Project SNOWstorm is already gearing up for perhaps our most ambitious winter season ever.”