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This is the best winter in years to spot snowy owls in South Dakota. Christian Begeman found this one near Okobojo Bay on Dec. 26.
This is the best winter in years to spot snowy owls in South Dakota. Christian Begeman found this one near Okobojo Bay on Dec. 26.

Snow Birds

Dec 28, 2011

It’s the last week of December and South Dakotans have just celebrated their first brown Christmas in years. It looks as if a brown New Year’s is on tap. In fact the only white we may see for the next few weeks are the snowy owls that are flying further south than many people can remember.

Jim Lewandowski, the office assistant at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Aberdeen, says they have seen an abundant number of snowy owls there so far this winter. Terry Jordre, a Brown County birder, told the Aberdeen American News that he’s seen plenty of the owls dotting the back roads of northern South Dakota.

Snowy owls breed on the Arctic tundra and come south during the winter in search of food. The nearly pure white birds can often be found as far south as Nebraska in winter, but this year they are flying into Kansas. Three were seen last week at a lake in Kansas City.

Experts seem to agree that the owls are venturing outside their normal range because of a food shortage. They prefer lemmings, whose populations fluctuate every three to five years. When lemmings are in short supply, owls seek out dietary supplements of rodents, rabbits, birds and fish, all of which are plentiful in South Dakota and other Great Plains states.

Unfortunately the owls have a difficult time adapting to their southern surroundings. They are used to life on the tundra, so their interactions with humans are limited. The owls aren’t used to avoiding cars, and many have been hit. Some owls are curious. “They’ll let you get close enough that they might even swoop down at your vehicle,” Lewandowski says. “They’ve done that up here.”

So if you have travel plans over the New Year’s weekend, keep your eyes peeled. You might spot a snowy owl perched on a fencepost or high in a tree near a lake or slough. The white owls will surely stand out against the browns of our snowless winter.

Comments

12:57 pm - Wed, December 28 2011
Emily Kiel said:
Saw your posting on Twitter about the snow owls and then read your article.....I have spotted one (at least I believe it to be the same one) at least 3 times in the past couple of weeks on my drive home. I live north of Pierre, off Hwy 1804, near Okobojo Bay. Very fun to see!

Emily Kiel
05:35 pm - Wed, December 28 2011
Jim said:
I have seen snowy owls in past years as far south as Charles Mix and Yankton counties. They always seem to appear during really bitter winters. Hope its just a rodent shortage and not a weather omen.
09:29 am - Thu, December 29 2011
Laura said:
Neat! I hope I get a chance to see one.
06:26 am - Mon, January 2 2012
John Andrews said:
Emily, does the photo we have with this column look like the bird you say? Christian Begeman found this one near Okobojo Bay on Dec. 26. It may be the same one?
06:03 am - Mon, January 9 2012
Hi Katie and Bernie, I so enjoy reading your magazine. I think everyone that lives in this state should get this magazine. Thanks for sharing about the snowy owls. I am leaving this week to go back to Frederick SD to photograph these majestic birds. There have been several spotted around the Aberdeen area. I have seen them before there but have not gotten a good photo as of yet. Wish me success and if I get some great photos I will share them with you. Harlan
07:44 am - Mon, January 9 2012
Cathy Folsland said:
We saw a snowy owl just west of Oldham in December of 2011 and were able to photograph him. What a beautiful sight!!
08:47 am - Mon, January 9 2012
Don Veltkamp said:
We saw a beautiful one on the lightpole below the dam at Yankton on Thursday,and then saw another snowy owl along HGW 81 in Nebraska Friday while driving down to Omaha! Incredible!
04:31 pm - Mon, January 9 2012
Anne said:
I love the print SD magazine and definitely like the additional on-line articles. Thanks you for this great magazine.
08:14 pm - Mon, January 9 2012
Dear John, thanks for sharing this about a very interesting bird of prey! I would like to add to the information about Snowies for your readers. You can usually tell the sexes apart because the males are much more white, and are smaller in size. The females are mottled with brown or grey, and are substantially larger.

The Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge has had as many as 30 in the area this winter. They seem to be dispersing now, with about 8-10 being seen by birders on a regular basis.

Another possible reason for this irruption, or invasion, of the birds is that the lemming population was so high this past summer in the Arctic that most of the fledglings survived. They do not have established territories for hunting this winter, and so moved south in search of food. Some raptor specialist friends in British Columbia, Canada shared this concept with us early this winter. The study of lemmings in 2011 showed that the population was astoundingly high.

No matter the cause, we are so lucky to see so many of these magnificent birds this winter! Enjoy them everyone, and good birding.

Maggie Engler
Co-founder
Black Hills Raptor Center
Rapid City
06:48 am - Tue, January 10 2012
Carol V. said:
We are in the southwest which is colder than SD this year. When the printed version of the SD Magazine comes in our mail, our friends happily point out places they have visited in SD. We smile and say, "We live there!" The on-line articles are a delightful addition. Thank you.
10:32 am - Wed, January 11 2012
Darcy said:
I have also seen a snowy owl regularly this winter in my commute between Hayes and Pierre. He tends to be in the area around the Little Brown Church on the Prairie west of Hayes

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