‘Sad ending to a very popular bird’: Snowy owl found dead

03/15/2012 5:00 AM

03/15/2012 6:15 PM

One of the most photographed birds in Kansas this winter, a snowy owl that faithfully staked out a territory and stayed in that location along the Butler-Harvey county line, has died.

The bird was struck by a vehicle sometime Wednesday morning.

“It is a sad ending,” said Wichita birder Paul Griffin, who visited the owl more than two dozen times within the past three months, creating nearly three hours of videos of the bird.

In an e-mail to Kansas birders, Griffin wrote that he decided on the spur of the moment late Tuesday afternoon to go see the bird.

“About 30 minutes before sunset as I turned into Elbing I immediately saw the Snowy where it was normally found, on a large pile of dirt,” Griffin wrote. “It was fairly windy and the Snowy was down out of the wind. I stayed until after sunset and I last saw the Snowy fly west into the fading evening light on the western horizon.”

And then, Wednesday morning, Bob Gress, director of the Great Plains Nature Center, was called to pick up the owl’s body.

Gress also sent an e-mail to Kansas birders.

“Many of us that observed the bird thought it appeared to be healthy,” Gress wrote. “It was observed catching and eating a variety of prey, even competed with a Red-tailed Hawk for food. I saw it twice within the last week and it was alert. Some of us speculated that it may take off any day to head back to the Arctic.”

In truth, Gress told the birders, the owl was horribly malnourished.

“According to one of my resources, average males weight was 1,612 grams and females 1,707 grams,” Gress wrote. “The dead owl weighed 876 grams. This is way below minimum weight. It was in a lot of trouble. Perhaps that is why it was hit by a vehicle. Sad ending to a very popular bird.”

This year has been called one of the most unprecedented snowy owl invasions of all time. Since Nov. 16, when the first snowy owl was spotted in Kansas, more than 140 sightings of the birds have been reported. A normal year may garner only one or two reported sightings of the birds from the Arctic.

The Butler County owl was first spotted in December. Cars and SUVs soon began driving miles on Butler County’s back roads so people could catch glimpses, take photos and send e-mails to birding sites.

At times, 20 people or more were seen near the bird, taking photographs and watching, Griffin said.

The owl’s carcass will be sent to Mark Robbins, collection manager of ornithology at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute.

From the moment the snowy owls were spotted in Kansas, biologists and wildlife experts warned that the birds had already survived extreme conditions. Several have been found dead throughout the state, including one that was found shot last month at Cheyenne Bottoms. A state and federal investigation into the shooting is ongoing.

The owls that have survived the Kansas winter are now beginning their trek back north.

“Based on every dead bird that comes in and is in such bad shape, you really have to wonder how many will make it back to the Arctic,” Gress said.

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