It’s somewhat rare to see a snowy owl in Kansas.
But you may have a better chance this year than most to catch a glimpse of one. They are popping up at various locations around the state.
Snowy owls have been seen at Cheyenne Bottoms, by the Jeffrey Energy Center, near Lindsborg and north of Newton. On Tuesday, more were reported near Parsons, Fort Riley and Lakin.
“It was on the west side of Pool 1, right beside the road,” said Pam Martin, education specialist at the Kansas Wetland Education Center at Cheyenne Bottoms. “It was super cool. We drove right by it because I was looking out in the field. It was maybe 20 yards from us. They are the epitome of wildness, fierce and a thing of beauty.”
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. They have gained recognition in wake of the Harry Potter books and movies, which featured Harry’s snowy owl, Hedwig.
The birds feed on lemmings and voles, small rodents. Lemmings were reported to have been in abundance in the Arctic 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 their territory.
The snowy owls prefer solitary vistas. On vast horizons, they appear as small white dots. 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.
Longtime birders suggest using some bird etiquette. Don’t try to walk up on the birds just to get a better photo. The birds who have made it to Kansas are often starving and exhausted.
“The danger is a lot of these owls are coming out of the Arctic and don’t understand cars or people,” Martin said.
Mark Robbins, collection manager at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, said he thinks this is an above-average year to see snowy owls in Kansas, though nothing like 2011, when there were 154 reported sightings.
An influx like the one in 2001 happens once in every 20 or 30 years, said Chuck Otte, secretary of the Kansas Ornithological Society.
“This could be a small little blip that could turn into something major, higher than the long-term average,” he said.
Something else could factor in to the numbers of owls reported in Kansas. The technology of recording sightings — with people taking high definition photos with cell phones and contacting birding apps — has burgeoned, allowing more people to know and show where and when the birds were located. Popular birding apps include eBird, iBird Pro, Sibley eGuide, Audobon Birds, BirdsEye and Birding in North America.
“There are so many new birders who haven’t been doing this for more than two or three years, so the mystique of a snow owl is a big thing,” he said. “I can understand the excitement.”