Owl of a sudden, it’s an irruption

Snowy owls observed across Iowa

A snowy owl perches atop a utility pole in rural Grundy County north of Beaman on Dec. 27. Photo by Suzanne Eastman

Despite an absence of snow until just recently in Iowa, it was still shaping up to be a snowy winter – a winter of snowy owls that is.

A recent uptick in snowy owls has been observed over the last month leading the Iowa DNR to declare it an irruption year – since late November, there have been snowy owl sightings in more than a dozen counties including Grundy.

Snowy owls breed in the Arctic tundra and usually only make their way down to Iowa and other Midwestern states in large numbers during what is called an irruption. In scientific terms, an irruption is when a species suddenly experiences an upsurge in numbers in a particular area.

Although snowy owls are native to Iowa – a few are spotted in Iowa on an annual basis – an irruption only happens roughly every four years following a summer of high breeding numbers.

To spot a snowy owl in Iowa one usually has to be alert. Or lucky.

One of the first confirmed sightings of a snowy owl in Iowa as part of the 2021-2022 winter season was reported by Andy Scanlon of Cedar Rapids on Nov. 28, 2021. Scanlon photographed a snowy owl (pictured) in Linn County near the Eastern Iowa Airport. Photo courtesy Andy Scanlon

For those hoping to add a snowy owl to their 2022 bird list, be on the lookout for an owl about the size of a crow with fluffed up, mostly white feathers and piercing yellow eyes sitting nearly motionless in a no-till field or perched atop a utility pole.

Sitting sentry in a field of harvested corn or atop a pole near a grassy ditch gives snowy owls the perfect environment to hunt their prey of rodents, rabbits, squirrels, and weasels.

Although he wasn’t actively looking for a snowy owl — hunting or otherwise — on Dec. 22, retired farmer Lyle Neher of rural Grundy County was rewarded with the sight of one nonetheless.

“I first spotted the snowy owl on December 22 while driving,” Neher told the Courier on Dec. 30. “Then again on the 26th [of December]. It has been seen everyday since then. It has been in about a half mile area, sitting on a light pole or post.”

This is the third time Neher and his wife Marlene have seen a snowy owl in Grundy County – the first time being in the early 2000s in Melrose Township and the second time around 2015 in Palermo Township – but this time was certainly the most special, arriving on their 65th wedding anniversary.

The Nehers were enjoying an anniversary lunch of roasted vegetables on Dec. 26 in the dining room of their son Paul Neher’s farm when Paul spotted something out the window atop a light pole.

“We watched [the snowy owl] for two hours before it flew to another pole and then to the ground,” Neher said. “It was a great treat to see it on our 65th wedding anniversary!”

The Nehers’ owl had some black barring across its white feathers which would make it either a female snowy owl or a juvenile – both of which sport varying degrees of dark markings. A completely white snowy owl is indicative of an adult male.

Dave and Suzanne Eastman of Black Hawk County received word of the Nehers’ Dec. 22 snowy owl sighting by way of the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union website and headed south to Grundy County on Dec. 27 in search of the owl.

“A couple days before Christmas I read that Tom Schilke, President of PRAS [Prairie Rapids Audubon Society] reported that Lyle Neher, farmer, bird watcher and long time PRAS member had seen a snowy owl on his way to town,” Eastman said in an email interview. “[On December 27], we drove the roads in the vicinity and spotted a possible bird or white plastic bag in a roadside ditch.”

As the Eastmans approached the ditch cautiously in their car the owl flew up from the ditch and landed on a utility pole, Eastman said. Not wanting to disturb the rare visitor from the north, they left the area quickly after taking a brief photograph.

They confirmed the Nehers’ assessment of the owl being either female or immature based on the plumage.

“We did not want to distress the bird any more than we had,” Eastman said. “Many of the snowy owls who venture from the Arctic down this far south may already be distressed from lack of food and [from] curious humans, dogs and road traffic.”

The best advice for those who happen to spot a snowy owl while they are out and about is admire them from a distance and to leave them be, according to Tama County Conservation Naturalist Brendan Kelly.

“A lot of times people will think something is wrong if they see a snowy owl sitting on the ground out in the open,” Kelly said. “But unless they’re laying on the side of the road, that’s not the case. It’s just what they do.”

If you do spot a snowy owl either in Tama or Grundy County or points beyond, reporting the sighting could be key to the species’ long term survival.

“Over the years we have seen a few snowy owls in Iowa,” Eastman said. “This year seems to be one in which there have been a number of sightings. Some of them have been seen on Christmas Bird Counts, a citizen science project that has been going on for over 100 years. Data from this project and other sources like eBird [eBird.org] enable scientists and others to draw conclusions about the effect of climate change on species and determine key habitats that are crucial to birds for migration, breeding areas and over wintering. We like to submit our data on eBird and participate in Christmas Bird Counts as a way to make something we do for fun into useful information that just might make a difference.”

The Iowa DNR advises those fortunate enough to spot a snowy owl to give the bird space – remain far away in your car with a set of binoculars or a spotting scope, preferably – and if your presence changes the behavior of an owl, you are too close and may be causing undue stress.

If an individual in Iowa finds a dead snowy owl, they are asked to report if to Iowa DNR’s Avian Ecologist Anna Buckardt Thomas (anna.buckardt@dnr.iowa.gov, 515-823-3945) and/or the State Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Rachel Ruden (rachel.ruden@dnr.iowa.gov, 515-823-8544).

As for the Nehers, they’ve spotted the snowy owl at least once more since New Year’s Eve but with or without the visitor from the north, their birding adventures will continue, Neher said.

“Since I’m not as busy on the farm now I spend more time [birding]. I enjoy being out walking and finding different migrating birds as the seasons change.”

As of publication, Snowy Owl reports to eBird for the 2021-2022 winter season have been made in Bremer, Boone, Buchanan, Cerro Gordo, Dallas, Dickinson, Grundy, Hamilton, Linn, Marshall, Polk, Story, Webster, and Woodbury counties.