The winter of 2017-18 will go down in the record books as the highest number of Snowy Owls seen in Indiana in a single winter.
To date, 139 Snowy Owls have been documented in Indiana this winter. The Indiana Audubon Society has been tracking sightings via submitted reports, social media sites, and birding websites, such as eBird.com. The new record breaks the old record of 121 owls that were seen during the winter of 2013/2014.
Snowy owl numbers fluctuate year to year based on their primary prey, lemmings, giant mouse like rodents, whose population also oscillates based on food supplies and weather conditions in the arctic. When populations spike, the owls respond with higher than normal breeding, with some nests containing ten or more eggs. The subsequent invasions later that fall result in not so much a food scarcity, but because of the abundance of food earlier that summer. Young owls tend to leave the arctic each winter, resulting in the larger than normal invasion occurring now.
While most winters see a handful of Snowy Owl sightings congregated in the northern part of the state, particularly along Lake Michigan, the current invasion has seen sightings occur nearly statewide, with 46 of 92 counties having reported an owl. Snowy Owls have been as far south as Evansville, with the most sightings near Indianapolis and the open agricultural land to the north and east of the city.
"As our wintering Snowy Owls begin to head north over the next month, now is still a good time to keep your eyes out for this amazing sign of the arctic," said Brad Bumgardner, executive director for the Indiana Audubon. "With winter snow melting, these amazing owls are standing out more among the open fields and farm land that they seem to prefer, rather than forests like many other owl species."
Owl seekers are reminded to keep their distance should they find one. Snowy Owls have little apparent fear for humans, but small stresses and spooking can wear a winter weary bird down, resulting in lower weights and less of an ability to fly back north in the spring.
To learn more about the Indiana Audubon Society and to search for programs and field trips near you, visit them on the web at www.indianaaudubon.org.