Monday, December 30, 2013

Finding Snowy Owls in the Adirondacks

Snowy OwlThe vast expanses of wilderness forests that cover the Adirondacks serve as home to many forms of wildlife adapted for survival in areas where visibility is limited by trees and grasses, and grains are nearly non-existent.

Large open areas scattered throughout the Park serve to support the collection of creatures that require much greater visibility and food sources that exist on the soil’s surface. Among those animals drawn toward these open spaces is the snowy owl, which regularly migrates southward from its arctic breeding grounds in autumn to establish a winter hunting territory in more hospitable surroundings.

The snowy owl is the largest owl in North America, as this predator has a wing span of about 4.5 feet and often weighs in excess of 4 pounds. (As a comparison, the barred owl has a wing span of 3.5 feet and averages from 1 to 2 pounds in weight, while the great horned owl has a wing span of roughly 4 feet and weighs from 3 to 4 pounds.)

The snowy owl, with its pure white plumage marked with occasional dark spots, is unmistakable in appearance when seen perched on a fence post, utility pole, or the roof of some building situated in the middle of a windswept field. The concentration of conspicuous dark patches over its body can be used to determine the relative age and sex of some individuals. Young snowy owls have an abundance of regular spaced dark spots, especially on their back and sides. As the bird ages, its loses some of these spots each time it molts. Males also develop fewer spots than to females. Consequently, a snowy owl that is almost pure white, except for only a few small dark specks is an older male, and a heavily spotted individual is a young female. A snowy owl that has an intermediate concentration of spots could either be a mature female or a male that has not yet reached maturity.

This year, there has been a record influx of snowy owls into the North Country. Researchers are still not certain as to the cause of this exodus from their breeding grounds, as it could be a shortage of prey, a record number of owls that successfully fledged this past summer, or a combination of both.

Regardless, if you plan to look for this impressive predator in the Adirondacks, turn your attention to those large open settings scattered throughout the Park. Among the naturally occurring sites spacious enough to attract a snowy owl is the Bloomingdale Bog just north of Saranac Lake, and the Spring Pond Bog west of the Fish Creek Campsite. The farmlands that lie near the shores of Lake Champlain are other places likely to attract snowy owls. Toward the center of the Park, there are the Horseshow Grounds adjacent to the Lake Placid Airport, the land around the Saranac Lake airport, and any of the area golf courses, such as those in Inlet, Old Forge, and Cranberry Lake.

As a general rule, the more mice, voles and small, ground foraging songbirds that an area supports in winter, the more likely that this owl will take up residence at that location for the duration of the winter. It has been reported by several researchers that a single snowy owl needs nearly a dozen mouse-size critters each day to maintain a state of good health. While a mouse can be swallowed whole by this predator, larger prey, like a hare, gray squirrel, or grouse are still attacked when seen and killed with little effort using its long, razor-sharp talons. These more sizeable forms of prey are ripped apart into several pieces before being swallowed.

Like other owls, the snowy owl is very capable of detecting and killing small animals during times when the landscape appears totally dark. This bird simply sits in one spot for hours until it either sees a small animal moving across the ground, or hears a critter pushing its way through the mass of dried grasses, frozen weeds, or ice crystals that cover the soil’s surface. But because the snowy owl resides in the arctic during the summer, when there is 24 hours of daylight, this hardy bird, associated with nocturnal organisms, is well accustomed to hunting when the sky is bright.

The exceptionally dense layers of plumage of this northern owl allows it to tolerate low temperatures, along with the wind that frequently blows in open areas in winter. As long as this bird is able to ingest enough food, it will remain in that general location throughout this season despite the intensity of the weather.

Traveling through an area likely to harbor a snowy owl can be an enjoyable trip on a sunny afternoon when the wind is calm. Venturing across an expanse of open terrain when a stiff breeze is in your face and the temperature is hovering around zero can be quite a different experience. Yet regardless of the weather, this meat-eater will be perched somewhere in the vicinity in its continuous search for prey.

Photo of Snowy Owl by permission of Diane McAllister, Imprints of Nature.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

7 Responses

  1. Sunny Day says:

    Is there any way we could set up a sighting blog to share these experiences with dates, times and locations?

  2. Bill Ott says:


    This will take you to the Snowy Owl site of There are a lot of sightings noted outside the blue line. Here is a chance for sightings to be listed inside, if you register on the site. I just found this site after reading Sunny’s comment and have not used it myself. Please try it – your name gets posted on the sighting.

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio

  3. Harold says:

    I really appreciate these articles Tom, keep them coming! We’ll keep a close eye out during our next XC trip.

  4. Merry says: is very helpful and interesting. The deep purple rectangle at Syracuse is Hancock Airport, not surprisingly. Up to 7 have been spotted at once.

  5. Dean cook says:

    This may be a winter when snowy’s would do better further south. The last week has left the Champlain valley’s fields covered with a sheet of ice. Not good if you are a small mammal hunter. At least another week ( and maybe much more) before any weather change that would allow owls/hawks better hunting.

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