The latest visitors to Kansas have been attracting big attention on the Internet.
Cars and SUVS are driving miles on back roads so people can catch glimpses. They’re taking photos and sending e-mails to birding sites.
Snowy owls have invaded Kansas.
“It is part of a big movement of snowy owls out of the Arctic,” said Mark Robbins, collection manager of ornithology at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute. “It happens every few years but this year it may be a little bigger than normal. It may also be a function of the Web. People are linked and able to communicate better.”
So far, eight snowy owls have been documented this winter in Kansas. A normal year may garner one or two reported sightings.
In reality, said Chuck Otte, president of the Kansas Ornithological Society, there may be many more snowy owls in Kansas. They prefer solitary vistas. On vast horizons they appear as small, white dots. Without good eyesight and not knowing what to look for, some birders have slowed down to see nothing more than white plastic bags waving in the wind. But for those who spot the real deal, it’s worth the effort.
“The owl yawned, preened, stretched and surveyed the area the entire time I was there,” wrote Wichitan Cheryl Miller in an e-mail. She watched the bird in a field for 90 minutes near the Harvey/Butler county line.
The reason they are coming?
“There has been a crash in the living population,” Robbins said. “The rodents they feed on in the Arctic go through up and down cycles in their production. The owls had nothing to feed on, and so they headed south.”
These are the type of owls that are best known to Harry Potter fans.
In fact, the birds, which normally breed in the Arctic regions and raise their young in the tundra wilderness, are showing up throughout many of the lower 48 states. For the first time, one was spotted this fall in Hawaii, according to some national birding reports.
The birds feed on lemmings and voles – small mice-like rodents. The lemmings were reported to have been in abundance this summer, allowing the snowy owls to raise more young. When fall arrived, the younger birds were forced to leave while the older ones claimed territorial spots.
Those that are arriving in Kansas are often exhausted and starving, Robbins said.
Two have died. Both were seen in Dickinson County. One had been struck by a vehicle. Another was so weakened that when people tried to help it, it died on the way to a rehab center.
“Some years you don’t even see them in Kansas,” said Wichitan Pete Janzen, author of “The Birds of Sedgwick County.”
“Normally the owls are nocturnal, so when you see them during the day it is because they are hungry,” Janzen said. “They perch near or on the ground, looking around.”
In recent weeks, birding listservs were flooded with reports of the snowy owls.
The first was spotted in Kansas Nov. 16.
One has been seen on the Harvey/Butler County line east of Newton, two at Marion Reservoir, two in Dickinson County, one at Cheyenne Bottoms near Great Bend and two on Sunday at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Stafford County.
Snowy owls are among the largest birds in North America, measuring 2 feet from head to tail. The only other bird to rival its size is the bald eagle.
Robbins is encouraging Kansans to photograph the birds to help researchers document their ages and sexes.
“Fortunately, it is straightforward identifying immature females (very heavily marked throughout the plumage) and adults males (very little markings),” he wrote in an e-mail to Kansas birders. He encouraged people to attempt to photograph the birds from several different angles, with special focus on the bird’s back, tail and nape.
Photos can be forwarded to him at email@example.com.