President of the Charlo, Montana based Owl Institute Denver Holt talks on the phone in the farmhouse-slash-research center where bird books and guides are neatly stacked on the living room coffee table and the kitchen window frames a view of the rugged Mission Mountains.
He’s on the phone a lot these days with people from all over the country who believe they’ve spotted a Snowy Owl.
Holt says the Mission Valley will generally see some snowy owls in the wintertime. But usually it’s in the neighborhood of 5 owls or so; in what he calls an eruption year, like this year, he says the Mission probably has 15 to 20 Snowy Owls, several in the Flathead, and they’ve been spotted across the high line, “this year is just unprecedented, in at least my lifetime,” Holt said, “in that so many birds have migrated south, and how far south they’ve gone.”
He recently received an email, and photo of a Snowy Owl from a man in Texas. He said the last influx of Snowy Owls into Montana came in the winter of 2005-6, “we had a huge influx of Snowy Owls in the northwestern United States, southwestern Canada. And that’s usually what happens. Or, in other years it’s northeastern United States, or maybe it’s the Great Lakes region; but, it seems to be more of a regional event. This year, it’s across the entire nation, again, that’s what makes it so unique,” Holt credits a good year for the owls’ primary food source in the tundra, lemmings, with their population boom this year.
“Now the other thing that’s interesting to add here, is that when you have a real high density of lemmings like, presumably we had, is these birds can go from not breeding in a low lemming year, to producing 5 or 6 young or more per nest,” Holt said.
Holt says the Snowy Owl breeds in the tundra, nesting on the ground. He says this is part of the reason researchers believe the female owl is not as bright white, and has dark bands in her plumage; to better blend in with the half-snow-half-melted ground of the tundra. Males, after a few years, become bright white. Younger males have some darker spots on them, and females are bigger than males. Holt says they’ve been studying the snowy owls for 20-years, starting out looking at their breeding season in Alaska and how it’s tied into the ebb and flow of the lemming population.
Many questions remain; why do some owls travel south in the winter, and some stay in the tundra, and are they traveling in family groups, among others.
Driving along the back roads in the hills above Polson we spot two owls, roosting on posts in what looks like a collapsed outbuilding, or the crumbling entrance to an old root cellar. We are in farm country, parked on a snow packed road with a hill on one side, and a fenced in farm field on the other. Holt sets up a spotting scope, and peering through it I see a bright white face, round golden eyes, and stripped feathers, ruffling in the wind. “every time we find them here, it’s always miserably cold, around the lake, when we find them, that’s what we say- ‘oh gosh, the Snowys are going to be up there, the winds going to be blowing, there’s going to be no cover, and they’re going to be sitting around, apparently looking comfortable,” Holt said, and they seem undisturbed by the snow, or the wind, while we’re in down jackets, heavy canvas clothing, and gloves.
Looking through the scope the owls spin their heads, looking to one side and the other, as Holt whistles, then makes a squeaking noise, mimicking a mouse. The owls take off, flying toward a nearby farmhouse to roost on the ridge of the roof. Holt says an adult female’s wingspan is about 5-feet, a males; 4 to 4 ½ feet.
As we continue driving we spot three more owls, one on a fence post, one perched atop a water tower, and another on the roof of a house. We also spot bird watchers, with scope’s set up and trained on the snowy owls. Holt says he has people coming in from Arizona, Utah, and other states to see the owls, “even kids driving around calling up- where are the owls! We’re looking for them. That’s so great, it’s just great for wildlife,” Holt said, “it’s not just good for Snowy Owls, but it’s good for wildlife and wildlife watching and conservation. Right now, I would say, that there is no bigger wildlife viewing event in the United States, than this Snowy Owl eruption.”
He says there are some cases of people chasing the owls, but mostly people give them space, and watch these large white birds so rarely seen, and at present so abundant in northern Montana. Holt says the owls should stay until March when they migrate back up north for the summer breeding season.