January 6, 2014 – ALBANY, N.Y. — Snow-white owls with luminous yellow eyes are thrilling bird-watchers as the magnificent birds set up winter residence at airports, fields and beaches far south of their normal Arctic range. The Florida Times-Union reports that one of the Arctic birds has been spotted since last week in Little Talbot Island State Park. It’s only the third-ever sighting of a snowy owl confirmed in Florida. Park services specialist Peter Maholland says bird watchers have been flocking to northeast Florida to catch a glimpse of the white bird. Snowy Owls are familiar to children as Harry Potter’s pet. They are the largest North American owl, and they’re typically found in Canada and the Arctic. Experts say snowy owls fly farther south when their population spikes or their food source becomes scarce. An invasion of snowy owls has been reported this winter across the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Snowy owls, familiar to children as Harry Potter’s pet, made a noticeable appearance in the northern half of the U.S. in 2011. Bird-watchers recently report on eBird.org snowy owl sightings in dozens of locations across the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states as far south as Cape Hatteras, N.C.
The owls live in the Arctic, but when their population spikes or lemmings are scarce, young ones fly south. “Snowy owl populations are synchronized with their food source, lemmings,” wildlife photographer Lillian Stokes, who co-authors the Stokes bird guides, said this week. “If the lemming population crashes, the owls have to go south in search of food.” A few snowy owls are seen in the U.S. every year, Stokes said. “But this year is phenomenal. People believe this could be historic numbers.” It’s too early to say how large this year’s snowy owl invasion will be, said Denver Holt, a researcher in Charlo, Mont., who has been studying the owls in Alaska for 22 years. “In 2011, it was enormous, nationwide, with sightings in 35 states,” Holt said. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website says that winter irruptions, or large numbers appearing outside their normal range, occur in snowy owls about every four years. During irruptive years, snowy owls may winter as far south as California, Texas and Florida. –News Journal