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POSTED January 14, 2012 3:49 p.m.

Welcome to another edition of Marsh Musings. I don’t think anyone who keeps up with the weather forecast for Barton County would have expected all of the snow we received at the Bottoms this past week. Snow this week in Barton County? Wondering if Doc and I have finally lost it? Sure, we did not get any snow in the form of precipitation, but we did get a lot of snow in the form of owls. Snowy owls that is!

It has been an alluring week here at Cheyenne Bottoms and the Kansas Wetlands Education Center. There is a buzz in the air as visitors have been traveling to the area from all over Kansas and even other states, including Texas and Colorado to name a few, all in hopes of catching a glimpse of an elusive raptor here in Kansas: the Snowy Owl. So far, visitors have been treated to quite a spectacle.

There are always owls at the Bottoms, so why are people so excited to see a snowy owl? The reason is that they are seldom seen in Kansas. Many visitors to the Bottoms have not seen one here in the past 5-6 years! Snowy owls are usually found in the northern regions of North America, spending the summers breeding in the Arctic, and overwintering as far south as the northern edges of the U.S. Every so often, these owls winter outside of their normal range, which is referred to as an invasion or irruption year. During these years, you can occasionally find a snowy owl in places like Kansas instead of the usual Alaska, Canada, and Eurasia.

Snowy owls live a predominantly nomadic lifestyle, mostly because of their strong reliance on lemmings, a small rodent similar to a vole. While snowy owls will eat other small rodents and some larger prey, they seem to always prefer the delicious lemming most of all. The invasion years, such as the one we are currently experiencing, are usually in union with the boom and bust cycles of lemmings in the owl’s home range, causing them to expand their range in search of food. However, researchers believe this invasion year is due to a different challenge.

Lemmings were born in huge numbers this year instead of experiencing a drop in the population, meaning more food was available to support larger snowy owl broods and improved chances of chicks surviving through critical months of their lives. Some reports even showed brood numbers as high as 14 chicks this past year, well above the normal average, especially considering snowy owls will often not brood offspring if prey is limited. This influx of owls means more competition for each bird and in turn, adults will protect their food and force juveniles away from their home range. Hence why we may be seeing so many in Kansas and even as far south as Hawaii this year!

Bird lovers everywhere can rejoice at the abundance of snowy owl sightings this year, regardless of the reason. Before this past week, my only snowy owl experience to date was seeing Hedwig, the beloved owl of Harry Potter, in the DVD series. Luckily, I had the great fortune of seeing two young female owls this past week with Dr. Witt while driving through Cheyenne Bottoms, and it is truly an experience I will never forget.

Snowy owls are fascinating, majestic creatures that everyone should have an encounter with in the wild. Thanks to Dr. Witt’s retirement, where everyday is like a Saturday, he has been able to run reconnaissance on the birds every day this week, and keep us posted on their whereabouts, which is available on the KWEC website. Until next time, happy birding!


Eric Giesing is the Director of Education for FHSU at the KWEC and Dr. Witt is a wildlife photographer/enthusiast.


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