Bird watchers delight in rare sightings of snowy owls

Irruption year brings the birds out of Canada

By Terry LehrkeNews Editor

This snowy owl was perched near Royal Farms, just west of Royalton on Nature Road. Kim Emerson, a volunteer with Crane Meadows Wildlife Refuge snapped a photo of the bird. Sightings of snowy owls are usually rare in this area, but due to an “irruption year” there have been many sightings in the county. The owls live up to 9.5 years in the wild. As one of the heaviest owls in North America, a large male may weigh about 7 pounds and may grow to 26 inches long.

This snowy owl was perched near Royal Farms, just west of Royalton on Nature Road. Kim Emerson, a volunteer with Crane Meadows Wildlife Refuge snapped a photo of the bird. Sightings of snowy owls are usually rare in this area, but due to an “irruption year” there have been many sightings in the county. The owls live up to 9.5 years in the wild. As one of the heaviest owls in North America, a large male may weigh about 7 pounds and may grow to 26 inches long.

To see a snowy oil in Morrison County is a rare event, usually.

Not so this year.

Every 10 years or so, during what is called an “irruption year,” snowy owls leave their typical feeding grounds for other areas.

The snowy owl lives in the tundra region of Canada, where it breeds and lives year-round. Typically an unusual sight, snowy owls seem to be abundant in Morrison County this year.

Frank Gosiak of Little Falls teaches in Holdingford, but enjoys birding as a hobby. He said the irruption year occurs when Lemmings  (a small rodent and source of food for the owls) multiply in large numbers. The snowy owl compensates by hatching more offspring. However, when the Lemming population is down, snowy owls may not have any offspring at all.

“It’s the balance of things in the tundra,” said Gosiak. “Sometimes bad weather will force the owls down in larger numbers, but generally we get only a few in the state in a year.”

Gosiak began getting reports of snowy owl sightings in December. Betsy Bueneke spotted one by Royal Farms, two miles west of Royalton. Bueneke called Milt Blomberg, who also teaches in Holdingford and is Gosiak’s friend.

The two went to Royal Farms and saw the pure white bird on top of a telephone pole near the road. Gosiak said as he and others gathered to see the owl, it flew down, grabbed a vole and returned to the top of the pole.

“With a 5-foot wingspan, a ghost-like appearance, and acrobatic flight the bird was a marvel to watch,” said Gosiak. “In 50 years I have only come across five of these birds in Morrison County.”

Two days earlier, Gosiak’s son, Caleb, had found a long-eared owl near Bowlus, an owl, which is smaller and even more rare than a great-horned owl.

Gosiak went home to report the find to the Minnesota Ornithological Union (MOU) about the sighting. The Union has a list serve and Gosiak said he knew many people from around the state would come to the site to see the bird.

“My job was done, so I thought,” said Gosiak.

“All of a sudden birders from around the state came pouring into Stearns and Morrison counties,” said Gosiak. “One guy called me up from Chicago. We were the talk of the bird world and many people came here which helps the area’s economy.”

Reports continued to come in.

A student reported a snowy owl sighting near the Opole Church.

“I thought two snowy owls in one year, how fortunate can I be?” said Gosiak. He and Blomberg were going to check it out after school.

Holdingford students, parents and school staff knew of the teachers’ interests and that they reported to the MOU; all were willing to share any sightings.

Gosiak said when people share their sightings, it makes it much easier to find birds he and Blomberg normally wouldn’t.

“These people are a valuable source of information,” said Gosiak.

That same day, Kathy Welle, a school cook, told Gosiak she had seen a snowy owl that morning, four miles west of Holdingford near County Road 17, matching her speed as she drove, flying beside her. She told Gosiak the bird would look at her with large black eyes, would look away, then gaze back. It followed her to her driveway and landed on a wood fence post.

Gosiak went to check on the sightings and was not disappointed. He had seen three owls in one year, a feat that would normally take 10 years.

On his way home, he stopped at the Royal Farm site. “To my amazement there were two birds, a spotted juvenile along with the mature white male I saw earlier,” said Gosiak. “This was getting weird.”

He reported the locations on the MOU list serve and was soon barraged with emails. “The word was out,” said Gosiak.

Birder friends came to see the owls and found more in the area.

“Benton County near Rice, Sauk Rapids and up to Little Rock became a hot spot,” he said.

More reports came from east of Royalton four miles past Little Rock and another by Bowlus, near South Elmdale.

“Never have so many snowy owls been found in this three-county area before,” said Gosiak.

Gosiak said that to-date, 20 snowy owls have been found in the area from Little Falls to Freeport and from Little Falls to Sauk Rapids, but it doesn’t stop there.

“A band of snowy owl reports has now developed which stretches from the northwest of the state to the southeast and it all began with the major reports coming from our area,” said Gosiak. “Such a magnitude of an irruption is unprecedented for our area and may never happen again.”

For now, Gosiak will keep looking and send in reports from those who tell him what they find.

“It is important,” said Gosiak. “Birds like owls keep a balance in the rodent population, which assists in an increase in crop production and in prevention of building damage. The survival of these birds rests upon how we treat and watch over them.”

“Many owls are on the endangered list and deserve our concern,” Gosiak said. “When something is gone it can’t come back and it does affect us more than we know.”

For help with sightings, contact Gosiak at (320) 616-7001 or fgosiak@gmail.com.

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