Thursday, January 26, 2012

Snowy owl story extends to east central Illinois

Snowy owl story extends to east central Illinois

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For most people in central Illinois, snowy owls are creatures of other places, belonging to the worlds of nature shows, or Harry Potter.

But in this unusual winter, snowy owls, which breed on the arctic tundra, have been relatively easy to come by here. You’re not likely to see one in your backyard, but if you’ve got access to the Web and you’re willing to drive a little, you might be able to add one to your life list without leaving your home county.

The first local report I know of concerned a snowy owl that was seen at Willard airport back in mid December.

Just before New Years, a second snowy owl was spotted on the ground in a cornfield east of Tolono. Observers became concerned when that bird stayed in the same place for too long, and on January 3rd it was captured and taken to the U of I Wildlife Medical Clinic.

The owl had suffered a broken wing and was badly dehydrated, but staffers were able to revive it, and surgery was performed to set the broken bone. Whether or not the bone will heal so the bird can be released is still an open question at this point, according to clinic director Julia Whittington.

[Photos: Youngsters enjoy a look at the Tolono snowy owl in the field. Others show the same bird on the mend in the care of Annie Rivas at the U of I Wildlife Medical Clinic.]

Taking into account the airport snowy owl and the one now at the Wildlife Medical Clinic, my friend Greg Lambeth, who tracks such things closely, estimates that there have been at least four, and as many as six different snowy owls observed in Champaign County in recent weeks.

Why are there snowy owls here now?

Their normal winter range extends as far south as Oklahoma, but they do not typically show up in any numbers below northern tier states.

National reports have suggested that a bumper crop of their primary prey, arctic lemmings, enabled them to successfully rear more young than usual this summer. But according to U of I avian ecologist Mike Ward, the evidence for this explanation is not all in yet. It could also be, he suggests, that raptors of the tundra are having particular difficulty finding food this winter.

In either case, Ward points out, the snowy owls we see are likely to be weaker birds that have been muscled out of better territory, so it’s important for people to appreciate them through binoculars and not to approach them.

In our area, birders typically locate snowy owls by driving county roads and scanning the surrounding fields for big blobs of white. Snowies, which are the heaviest of North American owls, stand about two feet tall, so they can often be seen at a distance, whether they’re perched on a post or hunkered down on the ground. (Unfortunately, wayward plastic grocery bags are just about the same size when they’re puffed up by the wind.)

If you would rather not spend your time and burn gas in such a search, which is fruitless more often than not, here’s an even better bet. Sign up to the Birdnotes listserv, which is managed by the Champaign County Audubon Society, and hosted by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District: some luck, then, you can simply wait for someone who has spotted a snowy owl to post its location.

**** Upcoming Bird Events ****

At 7:00 pm on Monday, January 30, at the Large Animal Clinic Auditorium of the UI College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. LoraKim Joyner will speak on "Human Dimensions of Conservation." Joyner specializes in conservation of wild parrot populations and consults in conservation and the human dimensions of conservation throughout Latin America.

At 7:00 pm on Thursday, February 2, Greg Lambeth will show slides and discuss the spectacular birding of a 3-week trip to Ecuador at the monthly meeting of the Champaign County Audubon Society. Urbana Free Library Auditorium.