Wilder Side of Oakland County
Two-foot-tall winged ghosts of the tundra are coming to town. Bird watchers, nature lovers, naturalists, and Oakland County Harry Potter fans are wishing for the rare opportunity to see the snowy owls of the Far North that have traveled thousands of miles south of their native Arctic home. These beautiful birds, adapted for life in the extreme cold, are the heaviest owl of North America and one of the largest owls on Planet Earth. Reports of snowy owls across the State of Michigan are rapidly trickling into the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and last week, acting on a tip from an avid birder friend in Lapeer, I set out for Tuscola County in the lower part of Michigan’s “thumb” to search for snowy owls. In less than 90 minutes we located three – – two sleepy ones on rural roadside utility poles and one in a plowed farm field with prey in its talons. These are the owls that I photographed to feature in this special report.
The coming weeks may bring a great irruption of snowy owls, a sudden upsurge in population followed by a massive southern migration far beyond their normal range, triggered by a combination of factors. Most ornithologists believe fluctuating prey availability, the boom or bust cycles of lemmings, and weather conditions all play a role. But some ornithologists think the invasions are a result of upward fluctuations in the owl population, with the adults driving the young birds from their favorite feeding grounds when they get too crowded. Science debates aside, there is nothing more exciting in winter than spotting one of these ghostly white arctic invaders with yellow eyes. They are graceful beauties and highly efficient predators equipped with extremely keen eyesight, excellent hearing, and powerful curved talons which are the last thing a lemming, meadow vole, rabbit, or duck may ever see or feel.
When the snowy owls reach Oakland County – and they are most likely already here – don’t look for them deep in our oak hickory woodlands or conifer woods. These arctic owls gravitate towards wide open spaces that substitute as an arctic-like habitat. Snowy owls are drawn to golf courses, shorelines, large open fields, and airport habitats-much to the concern of pilots. Being a raptor of the arctic, the land of the Midnight Sun, snowy owls will perch and hunt in the open during daylight. Sometimes they perch on urban rooftops near open fields, but their favorite sites by far for perching are power line transmission poles, fence posts and any other vantage points from which they can scan the horizon for the sight or sound of prey. A buoy near shore or a dock at the edge of a lake may make suitable resting and hunting perches where even ducks can be prey.
Want to try to see a snowy owl locally as this dramatic natural history spectacle unfolds? Look at power poles near farm fields and at solitary trees at the edge of meadows and fields. Go for a New Year’s hike in one of our Oakland County Parks, Seven Lakes State Park near Holly or a Huron-Clinton Metropark and pay sharp attention to your surroundings when passing through wide open spaces. While traveling over the holidays, don’t forget to be alert along the more rural sections of the I-75 corridor, especially in northern Oakland County. Red-tailed hawks are commonly seen perched along the expressway, but snowy owls may also take advantage of these edge zone hunting habitats rich with squirrels, meadow voles, and rabbits. If you happen to see, or better yet photograph, a snowy owl in one of our Oakland County Parks or anywhere in Oakland County, please share the good news with us.
If I was a snowy owl, I just might do my meadow vole hunting in the secluded meadows and fields of Addison Oaks, Independence Oaks, Lyon Oaks, or Orion Oaks county parks. But the final word is that these nomads of the north can appear anywhere, even perching on rooftops in an urban habitat. NOTE: Be sure to give these federally protected raptors plenty of space and view from afar. All the photos that appear with this blog were shot with a telephoto lens while I sat in a car at the edge of roads.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County. This blog was originally published January 2nd, 2015.