A snowy owl descends on its perch on a chimney in the Drakes Island neighborhood in Wells on June 16. Snowy owls can be common to the area in winter, but very rare in the summer. Now it seems, winter sightings are also decreasing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As we go into the final weeks of the winter portion of the Maine Bird Atlas, we are bringing focus to the best picture we’ve ever had of the distribution of Maine birds. One of the most interesting parts of looking at birds in Maine during the winter is how different their distributions can be each year. With that in mind, Nancy Borg from Biddeford asked a timely question, “Where are the snowy owls this winter?”

In most years, the first snowy owls to arrive in Maine come in late November or through December, and will usually remain until around March, when they’ll fly back north to spend the summer on the Arctic tundra. Maine is about as far south as they regularly go. Snowy owls are one of the only birds capable of wintering in the Arctic, but only when food is plentiful. We see more snowy owls when they’ve had successful breeding seasons, and the abundance of owls heading into the arctic winter means that some, usually young ones, need to wander south where there will be less competition for food.

This type of movement is known as an irruption (not to be confused with an “eruption” of owls, though that image is fun to think about.) You can think of an irruption as a type of migration where instead of going from point A (wintering grounds) to point B (breeding grounds), and back and forth, the species needs to go to point C temporarily because some resource, typically food, is scarce.

The best source for information on snowy owls is from a group called Project SNOWstorm. This project was started a decade ago, during the massive irruption that sent snowy owls all over the place. Even Bermuda had a snowy owl record in 2013. Earlier this winter, on the Project SNOWstorm blog, there was a prediction that this year would be “bad” for irruptive owls. Dr. Jean-François Therrien of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania shared in a November 2022 blog post: “Summer 2022 saw very low lemming abundances across most of the Canadian Arctic, the core breeding range for the Snowy Owl, including the long-term study site on Bylot Island (Nunavut). The only place harboring nesting Snowy Owls that we are aware of in 2022 was on Ward Hunt Island at the very northern tip of Canada (only a few hundred kilometers away from the North Pole). Our colleagues in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow, Alaska) with the Owl Research Institute reported only a single nest in 2022.” With so few owls nesting last summer, there isn’t as much competition to push owls south this winter, so we are seeing very few across Maine.

One thing I like to think about, and urge you to reflect upon, during the times when a species isn’t present, is how lucky we are when they are around. I encourage anyone missing snowy owls right now to check out Project SNOWstorm and learn more about the amazing work it has done over the past decade. Read up on the blog about new technology using satellite imagery to help identify snowy owl nests in the remote Arctic.



I’ve been beating this drum a lot, and as loudly as I can this winter, but with just a couple of weeks left, I want to make a final plug: Help us gather data for the Maine Bird Atlas! This is a project by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife with the goal of documenting the breeding and wintering distributions of Maine’s birds. This five-year effort is wrapping up. Last summer was our final breeding season, and this winter our final season for wintering birds wraps up on March 15.

It’s very easy to contribute to the winter atlas. You only need to report what birds you are seeing, and when and where you are seeing them. It doesn’t matter if there are birds you don’t know, everything from chickadees to pigeons are important to track, so let us know what you’re seeing! We use Cornell’s eBird database for collecting sightings, which has a very easy-to-use app (simply called eBird) that makes it possible to submit records within seconds. Not sure what species you are seeing? Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID app is eerily good at suggesting identifications of what birds you are seeing based on a few simple questions (like size, location and behavior).

In these final weeks, we’re looking for volunteers to access some “remote” or better-called “under-populated” areas. But even if you are in a populated and heavily birded area, being able to get more data across each of these winters is going to be a huge help to the project. To learn more, and see maps of where efforts are most needed, go to maine.gov/birdatlas. We hold weekly Q&A sessions on Zoom, every Thursday evening (see the Calendar of Events link), so come with questions or just drop in to hear how the project is coming along!

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to ask@maineaudubon.org and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 8 to 10 a.m. during the winter, at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: