A snowy owl alights on its perch on a chimney in the Drakes Island neighborhood of Wells in this 2021 file photo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Despite the reported dearth of birds around feeders, folks are reporting that many of our winter visitors are now coming south. Dark-eyed juncos have moved from the higher elevation nesting sites to backyards across the state, and a huge variety of waterfowl are hitting the ocean.

One species that we’ve been getting asked about recently is the snowy owl. This denizen of the arctic tundra often shows up in Maine at least in small numbers. Some years we see large flights of them coming south. So, what can we expect to see for snowy owl numbers in Maine this winter?

First of all, it is important to remember that snowy owls generally only come to Maine as part of an irruption. This is a type of migration where instead of a bird 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.

In the case of a snowy owl, point C would be Maine. In non-irruptive years they’ll stay farther north hunting mammals around the tundra and sea ducks from pack ice. Large flights into Maine occur after a summer of high productivity for snowy owls, typically thanks to an abundance of voles and lemmings (their favorite foods). When food is abundant lots of babies are born, and come fall many of those birds will come south into Maine. We can tell the age of snowy owls just by their appearance; a trained eye can spot “molt limits” where some retained feathers on young birds will have a slightly marbled look compared to the contrasting feathers of an adult.

It is also important to emphasize that snowy owls come south in winter when there has been plenty of food in the summer. Young birds come here looking for easy meals as opposed to staying in the arctic and competing with adults. The owls that come down here are not starving – that’s a common misconception – and instead are typically very healthy.

Irruptions do tend to be cyclical, linked to the population booms of arctic rodents that are happening every three to five years. This is a fun time to reflect on past irruptions because this winter will mark 10 years since we experienced one of the largest flights ever recorded. The 2013-14 winter saw hundreds of snowy owls come through Maine, many continuing on and reaching southern states and even Bermuda. During that massive flight, there were some early signs that we were in for a treat. The first snowy owls that winter were reported by mid-November. Though that was average timing (some years) they can arrive by late October), the numbers were dramatically higher with a dozen reported within the first week of sightings.


Our knowledge of snowy owls and their behavior and movements during irruptions has grown tremendously over the past decade thanks to a crowdfunded research effort called Project Snowstorm. When that 2013 irruption started, researchers knew they were experiencing what might be a once-in-a-lifetime event and without time to write grants or secure conventional funding, they launched an effort to raise money quickly and deploy transmitters on birds to track their movements. I can’t do justice to all of their work in this column, but will encourage you to check out projectsnowstorm.org to learn more about this effort and encourage making a donation to keep this work going.

This site also has a blog where information about nesting and wintering owls is available. As of this writing, no news has been posted as to whether this summer was particularly good for nesting owls or not. We’ll have to wait and see if a lot of owls come south this winter. My guess is that by the time you are reading this the first reports from Sargent Mountain or other snowy hotspots may have come in.

Whether it is a large irruption or not, I want to take this opportunity to remind folks about proper owl-viewing ethics to keep in mind if you are going owl searching this winter. Owl spotting is a delicate topic; many groups hesitate to share owl locations because previous human behavior has been disruptive to the birds. There isn’t a clear-cut answer to “how close is too close?” and individual birds will respond to human presence in very different ways.

My recommendation is to watch the bird closely, and as soon as your actions change the behavior of the bird, this is a sure sign that you are too close and need to move back immediately. The first sign is if the bird is looking at you – it may look because of a squeak or other noise you’ve made, but if it looks at you because of your advances, stop. Seeing these incredible owls of the arctic can be a life-changing experience, so I encourage you to try seeing one, but always put the bird’s well-being first.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to ask@maineaudubon.org and visit www.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, 7 to 9 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.

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