Snowy owl has birdwatchers flocking to Armstrong County

Liz Hayes
| Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Viewing a snowy owl in Pennsylvania usually requires a stop at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh or renting a Harry Potter movie.

But for the past month, an owl similar to Harry Potter's avian companion, Hedwig, has been hanging around a farm in West Franklin.

Seeing any owl out in the open during the day isn't common in Pennsylvania, so a large, nearly pure-white owl soaking up the unseasonably warm March sunshine has become a spectacle on the farm about a mile south of Worthington.

Brian Shema, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, said birdwatchers from across the state are flocking to the rural neighborhood to view the owl that spends most of its life on the Canadian and Alaskan tundra.

Shema, who works from Beechwood Farms Nature Preserve in Indiana Township, drove to the Armstrong County farm on Saturday and lined up with a dozen other birdwatchers using cameras, sighting scopes and binoculars to observe the owl.

"We looked like the paparazzi out there," Shema said. "Northern Pennsylvania, Central Pennsylvania, West Virginia — there are people coming from all over the place to take a look at this bird."

Although an experienced birdwatcher spotted the owl last week and put the word out over the Internet, Shema said the farm's owner and neighbors began seeing the bird about a month ago.

To protect the owl and the private property it's inhabiting, Shema requested the exact location of the farm not be publicized.

Unlike many owls, the snowy owl doesn't hide during the day.

"Snowy owls are somewhat unique in that they always find a conspicuous place to perch — which is great for us," Shema said. The West Franklin owl spends most of its time on utility poles, rooftops — and even on the ground.

Neighbor Brandi Wilson said her husband came home a few Sundays ago and told her he saw one of their white rabbits in the farmer's field. When he went to retrieve the bunny, he was surprised to find an owl.

"I've never seen anything like it," Wilson said. "He's stays right around here. I watch him every day. I'm not a birdwatcher, but he's pretty interesting."

Shema said it's not unheard of for snowy owls to come this far south during the winter — they've been spotted as far south as Texas. The severity of the northern winter and the availability of their food — lemmings and other rodents — determine how far south the birds will migrate.

Several published reports this year indicated an unusually large number of snowy owls spotted in the United States.

Experts have postulated the owls' presence likely is due to plentiful food last year resulting in a high owl birthrate. A larger owl population means more competition for food during the winter, pushing the birds farther outside their usual range to hunt.

Shema said a few owls are sighted in Pennsylvania most years, but some are seen only briefly. A snowy owl created spectacle in 2009 when it spent a single afternoon on rooftops in Pittsburgh's North Side.

The Pittsburgh-based National Aviary last fall debuted a year-old snowy owl named Fleury after Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Shema said it's impossible to say how long the West Franklin owl will stick around. Although the heavily feathered bird was seen panting in the 75-degree heat on Saturday, Shema said it is day length, not temperature, that determines when the birds fly back to the Arctic.

Snowy owls tend to like open farmland for hunting. Shema said the owl's continued presence in Armstrong County is a good indicator of the quality of the land, which is in the Buffalo Creek Important Bird Area.

"There are a lot of really good land-use practices (in the area), specifically from the farmers," Shema said. "They're using agricultural practices that benefit wildlife."

Additional Information:

About the snowy owl

With an average weight of about 4 pounds and a wingspan reaching 52 inches, the snowy owl easily tops Pennsylvania's largest native owl, the great horned owl.

Only the great grey owl, found in the West, stands taller than the snowy owl.

The snowy owl is diurnal, meaning it is active during the day.

Since the male owl usually is slightly smaller and a lighter shade than the female, Brian Shema from the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania suspects the bright white West Franklin owl is male.

Although mostly white, the bird usually is speckled with darker spots or bars.

The owls usually are solitary but monogamous. They live an average of about 10 years in the wild.

Source: Shema and National Geographic.

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