By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN A rare visitor to the Cokato and Howard Lake areas has been spotted by several locals in the last few weeks a snowy owl from the Arctic tundra.
Snowy owls do not typically venture this far south in Minnesota, but can be seen in the winter months in northern parts of the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“Slowed down for a ghostly figure on the side of the country road in rural Cokato,” posted Andy Lien on Facebook Dec. 28. “It was a snowy owl. A little spooky, but so elegant.”
Lien saw the bird on the side of Wright County Road 125 between Wright County State Aid highways 4 and 5, northeast of Cokato.
Dawn Seuss saw it the same day sitting on a power pole near Dale Penaz Auto Body on 30th Street near Wright County Road 5.
“It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Seuss said. “I love owls!”
Several observers have posted their sightings on a Google maps site that tracks snowy owl sightings.
The earliest posting is from a snowy owl sighting that took place Dec. 22. “Take Wright County Road 6, 3.5 miles north of Howard Lake, bird is on west side of the road atop the third power pole, just past the intersection of Wright County Road 6 and 30th Street Southwest. Absolutely beautiful bird; my first snowy,” said the post by Cara Cox.
A posting from Dec. 27 said, “This evening, while looking for the Howard Lake individual, one was found at Wright County Road 5 and 50th Street, near the Smith Lake railroad tracks about one mile north of US. Highway 12, 4:30 p.m. It was very white with few flecking, no real ‘goggle’ white diagnostic about the eyes, very little ‘dust’ on crown, perhaps the same individual as Wright County Road 6 and 30th (Street). At deep twilight, it flew west, north of Smith Lake.”
A third posting was from Jan. 1. “Late yesterday, we found a pair of snowy owls on poles along 30th (Street). One is much paler, very subtle bars,” the post said.
The Enterprise Dispatch ventured out Jan. 2 to capture a photo of the visitor, and came upon a snowy owl in the same vicinity along Wright County Road 6, just north of 30th Street, sitting on a power pole.
The snowy owl sat there for numerous photos, and then flew east over a snow-covered field.
Those who go out to attempt to spot the snowy owl should be cautious, as snowy owls tend to fly low over highways, making them easy to hit with a car, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Biologist Bob Russell.
Not being used to trees because they come from the Arctic tundra, snowy owls are more likely to be found away from forested areas, sitting on power poles, on the ground, or on hay bales, Russell said.
About snowy owls
Nesting and raising their young in northern Canada and Alaska, this large, white raptor comes to northern Minnesota to hunt voles, mice, and other small animals during the winter months, according to the DNR.
Although unpredictable, an irruption occurs every 10 years or so. An irruption is when a large number of snowy owls travel farther south in greater numbers than usual, according to the Project Snowstorm website, which is dedicated to studying the habits of snowy owls.
This year’s irruption seems to originate in northeastern Canada, and has traveled down the eastern coast of the US, according to Russell.
In late November, more than 200 migrating snowy owls were counted in one day in Newfoundland, which Russell said was “extraordinary.”
Snowy owls have been spotted as far south as Amelia Island, off of northeastern Florida, and there are also a large number of sightings in Virginia and North Carolina.
In the Midwest, snowy owls have been spotted as far south as Little Rock, AR this year.
“There were a fair number of snowy owls last year,” Russell said. “But this is the largest (irruption) in several decades.”
He noted that as many as 18 snowy owls have been spotted in the Dakotas, and quite a few have been seen in Minnesota’s Stearns, Benton, and Morrison counties.
Most sightings of the snowy owl in Minnesota have occurred in the eastern part of the state.
Noting that his thoughts are purely hypothetical, Russell said he thinks the weather in Canada may be what is driving the snowy owls farther south this year pushing birds that would normally stay south, as well.
This is because snowy owls are also circumpolar, meaning they will travel along the Arctic Circle east and west looking for food as well as moving south, Russel commented.
He also noted that a large population of lemmings and other creatures snowy owls feed on at their nesting grounds probably led to a large population of young.
The large population of young will also be forced farther south to look for food that is more scarce in the winter, according to Russell.
The snowy owls will usually begin to head back north in February, and by mid-March, will typically be gone from Minnesota.
A snowy owl is about the same size as a great horned owl; it is large and white, about 22 inches in length, and weighing approximately 5 pounds.
The snowy owl’s head is round, and it has yellow eyes, no ear tufts, and a black beak.
Some snowy owls, like the one pictured, are nearly pure white, while others are heavily speckled in black or brown.
Although snowy owls hoot and make various other calls during the nesting season, they are mostly silent during winter migration.
Female snowy owls lay their eggs on grassy hummocks in the Arctic. The number of eggs varies, depending on the amount of food in a particular area, according to the DNR.
Snowy owls eat lemmings, voles, mice, rabbits, and birds. Their predators are great horned owls, coyotes, and foxes.
Although it was thought that snowy owls were twilight hunters rather than night hunters, some satellite-collared snowy owls have been tracked flying out into the Atlantic Ocean to feed on migrating ducks.
“Nobody thought they did anything like that,” Russell said.
Snowy owls live on the Arctic tundra, open grasslands and fields, and even on frozen stretches of water.
When migrating into northern Minnesota, they are sometimes seen hunting for food in railroad yards and other city areas that attract rodents.