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Watch for Snowy Owls and Snow Geese | Kitsap Week

A snowy owl perches on a tree stump.  - George Gerdts photo
A snowy owl perches on a tree stump.
— image credit: George Gerdts photo

An irruption of Snowy Owls quickens the heartbeats of most Washington bird watchers.

These upsurges don’t happen every year, but the last three years have been banner years. Last year, a dozen hung out much of the winter at Ocean Shores, and there were nearly as many in the Skagit area.

This winter, East Coast birders are reporting an unusual number of Snowy Owls, echoing last winter’s bounty in Washington state.

These fluctuations are unpredictable, and are brought about by natural swings in Arctic lemming populations. When food is plentiful, the owls may be too successful at raising young. An overpopulation of young owls or a crash in lemming populations can trigger these migrations as owls are forced to range farther and farther in their search for food. Those that travel as far south as Washington and Oregon often tend to be undernourished younger birds that may not survive the season. Nature can be unforgiving as the prey population swings from plenty to scarce.

I remember visiting the Dry Tortugas islands off the coast of Florida many years ago. Migrating birds were pinned down by severe winds and slowly starving. It was thrilling to be surrounded by warblers, swallows and other birds too weak to hide, but it was heartbreaking to know that many would not survive.

Although it can be sad for the unfortunate owls, Snowy Owl irruptions bring spectacular viewing opportunities for photographers and birding enthusiasts.

Snowy Owls are an added bonus for those who visit the Skagit area during winter to see Snow Geese, Trumpeter Swans and various birds of prey. The rich farmlands are a magnet for Snow Geese, which winter there by the tens of thousands. When spooked by a passing eagle, they fill the sky like snowflakes. The area also hosts scattered flocks of Trumpeter and Tundra Swans each winter, as well as a variety of hawks, falcons and eagles.

The Skagit River is famous for its winter concentrations of Bald Eagles. Determined bird watchers can also see 15 or more species of raptors, including five species of hawks, six species of owls and four species of falcons. In addition, the ponds and shorelines harbor an assortment of marine birds and waterfowl.

If you visit the Skagit area, please be careful about parking along narrow shoulders to view the Snow Geese and swans. Don’t block traffic, and be considerate of the folks who live nearby. You can also show your appreciation by patronizing local businesses. The Skagit in winter is a special place, with lots to see and do.

Winter birding is not for everybody, but the rewards are great for those who don’t mind bundling up or risking a little rain. And those lucky enough to view the magnificent Snowy Owl can warm themselves for years on the memories.

— Gene Bullock is editor of the Kitsap Audubon Society newsletter, The Kingfisher. Contact him at genebullock@comcast.net

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