Published January 24, 2010, 12:00 AM

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Snowy owls make their appearance in the area

Nature is a better reporter than prognosticator, and it’s wrong to think of snowy owls as a sign of things to come. But it’s easy to understand how this bit of folklore developed. Snowy owls have been scarce all season — until last week, when I received reports of seven different sightings, all in Grand Forks County. And I saw a snowy owl myself, my first owl of the winter.

By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald

Nature is a better reporter than prognosticator, and it’s wrong to think of snowy owls as a sign of things to come.

But it’s easy to understand how this bit of folklore developed.

Snowy owls have been scarce all season — until last week, when I received reports of seven different sightings, all in Grand Forks County.

And I saw a snowy owl myself, my first owl of the winter.

Then came the storm.

Is there any connection?

Probably not.

But who knows for sure?

Probably not because snowy owls respond to conditions on the ground, and that generally means north of us.

So, their sudden appearance here probably means that food is more abundant and easier to catch here than it is farther north.

Or, food may have become scarcer there as winter went on.

Really, this is saying pretty much the same thing.

But at the same time, prey must be pretty hard to procure in the Red River Valley this winter because the ground is pretty well snow-covered — and to considerable depth in most places.

True, the wind has blown some fields bare, but any piece of land with any cover, stubble, grass or brush, is holding lots of snow — a couple of feet in fields near my place west of Gilby, N.D.

Owls are very effective hunters, of course, but a couple of feet of snow should be enough to protect most critters.

So perhaps, the owls will move on.

It seems unrealistic to me to suggest that the owls came south because a storm was coming. This storm came from the south, and the owls would have flown right into it.

Still, nature has its mysteries, and it might be that the owls do respond to atmospheric conditions. Flying might have been easier in the fine weather that prevailed early in the month, and opportunistic owls might simply have moved with it, taking pretty where could.

This would mirror the behavior of other northern “erratics,” including waxwings, which are true wanderers, moving from food source to food source, sometimes over hundreds of miles or more.

Redpolls and siskins are irruptive birds, too, but they go only as far as necessary to find sources of the seeds that sustain them.

Both redpolls and siskins have been scarce indeed this winter — the fewest I can recall.

On the other hand, there have been several reports of white-winged crossbills. These are birds of the northern forests, too, subsisting largely on the seeds of evergreens.

Unlucky me! I haven’t had crossbills at my feeders. I’m optimistic, though, because the evergreens I planted a dozen years ago have matured to the point that they do produce cones, and so they will provide for crossbills in the future.

Apart from chickadees and an occasional nuthatch, the only species that shows up regularly at my feeder spread is American goldfinch, and I am feeding a horde of them. At least 30 showed up in the snow Saturday morning.

These goldfinches are much drabber birds than they would be in summer. The best way to identify them is by their size, of course, because they don’t grow any bigger once they mature, and the white bars in their wings.

Otherwise, they are drab greenish-gray or greenish-yellow, hinting at their summer splendor, when they are brilliant yellow with black caps and wings — and those telltale white wing bars.

Of course, woodpeckers show up at the feeders, too. A hairy woodpecker spent much of Saturday morning filling up on suet.

Apart from my single snowy owl sighting, birds along County Road 33 have been scarce. I’ve come to expect gray partridges at a couple of spots along the road, and many days, I flush a flock of snow buntings. One memorable morning, there were Lapland longspurs mixed in with the buntings — but that was before Christmas and the huge snowfall.

Of course, the snowy owl is a threat to the partridges.

That’s the way nature works.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald. This column appears on the Outdoors page on Sundays.

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