Something truly wild is visiting Pennsylvania this winter.
It comes from an area so remote that some of these visitors have never seen a human before.
Snowy owls have been dispersing from their range in the tundra landscape north of the Arctic Circle to the south, winding up in several Pennsylvania counties in a movement that some birders say may never be seen again.
“This may be the largest irruption of snowy owls in our lifetime,” said Doug Gross, an ornithologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “The birding community is extremely excited about this. It’s a polar species and a really engaging, charismatic bird. If you see one, you may be the first human that this bird has ever seen.”
According to Gross, this year’s irruption (an incursion of birds into an area where they don’t normally winter) is the result of a very successful nesting season on the tundra. The birds being seen in Pennsylvania are mostly young owls, he said.
“With a good nesting season, there is less space and less food now and they just need to move out,” Gross said.”In their tundra environment, snowy owls primarily eat lemmings, and they’re well-suited to taking our abundant meadow voles.”
Two years ago, snowy owls invaded the northern United States, including Pennsylvania. This winter’s event is much bigger and so far sightings have been reported in 32 counties — including Lancaster, Chester, Lebanon, Lawrence and Erie, along with the New England states, New York and the New Jersey coast.
While there have yet to be any sightings in Luzerne County, area birders are anxiously hoping for the owls’ arrival.
“This is dramatic. A once-in-a-lifetime event,” said naturalist Rick Koval, who has been a birder in Luzerne County since 1992. “It doesn’t get any more wild than a snowy owl, and when they’re coming here in this volume, it’s something that even a non-birder can get excited about.”
Koval said there have been brief sightings of snowy owls locally in the past. In 1992, one was seen by several birders near the Cross Valley Expressway between Wilkes-Barre and Plains. Several years ago, there was another sighting in the Hazleton area.
“I got a call about it, left work and when I got there it was gone already,” Koval said.
Because snowy owls aren’t used to humans, Gross said they may act naive and not show much fear. Because they come from an area that has 24 hours of daylight for part of the year, snowy owls will hunt during the day — one of the few owl species to do so.
Gross said they prefer wide open expanses similar to the tundra landscape of their home range.
“This is a true polar species and they look quite prominent perched in these open areas,” he said. “Open fields and the edges of bodies of water are good places to look, such as Harveys Lake. Also watch for them to be perched on silos near farm fields.”
Koval has seen snowy owls in other areas in the past, such as Presque Isle State Park in Erie, and he said the image is something that sticks with him.
“They are the largest of owls and it is really something to see those yellow, hypnotic eyes on that snow white body,” Koval said.
Gross said he expects the snowy owls to settle in areas with abundant food and remain there until February, when they head back north.
And while the irruption began in early December, Gross said there may be more snowy owls on the way.
“Hundreds are being observed in the New England states and some of those may move south,” he said. “The movement to here may not have ended, so I encourage people to keep watching.”