As we reflect on this past Thanksgiving holiday and get ready for the coming Christmas season, we want to begin this week’s segment with some reflections of our own; we are truly thankful for the opportunity to write Nearby Nature and the Weekly Villager for printing our articles. It is hard to believe that this is article #56. We are thankful for the opportunity to enlighten our readers, share hiking experiences, meet new friends, and most of all the ability to enjoy our natural world up close and personal. Finally we are thankful to our respective families, who at times think we are a bit “loony.”
We all remember the Christmas holiday classic “The Christmas Carol” and the three spirits that visit old Ebenezer during the night. A mysteriously large white specter is flying around Northern Ohio at the present time. Fortunately for us, we will not have to be sleeping to see this ghost! Tundra Ghost, Ookpikjauk, Le Hibou Blanc, and Ghost Owl are all names for this ghoulish creature. However, we know it as the American Snowy Owl, Nyctea scandiaca.
The majestic Snowy Owl is one of the few birds that can get even non-birders to come out for a look. The largest by weight of any owl in North America, it stands a little over two feet tall and has a wing span of over five feet. Like all owls, these owls can see exceptionally well at night, but this owl has an added advantage. It can see just as well during the day when it is most active, an advantage when they live far north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey in 24-hour daylight of the arctic. Reclusive, patient, and extremely ferocious are some of the characteristics shown by this stealthy creature, but it is the dark yellow eyes with black pupils along with its white plumage that gives it the ghostly appearance. Adult Snowy Owls have no natural enemies but their eggs are subject to predation by arctic foxes and unprotected young can become prey to other arctic birds. Living in a treeless environment, snowy owls spend most of their time on the ground or perched on mounds known as pingaluks scanning the horizon for food. These mounds are the products of frost heaves that lift fairly large sections of the ground. Pingaluks can be as much as two or three feet above the surrounding area and are often drier, making them ideal for nesting sites. Researchers believe Snowy Owls mate for life and breeding occurs in mid May. Nests are lined with bits of moss but more often than not there is no defined nest and eggs are laid in a depression on the pingaluk. However living and breeding in the arctic can have its disadvantages because it gets really, really cold. Not to fear, these birds thrive in the cold and have adapted to the harsh arctic conditions. They have thick down that allows them to maintain a body temperature of 104oF when it’s -70oF.
Every winter in Northern Ohio there are reports of Snowy Owl sightings. No, it’s not because they are tired of the cold weather and wanting to vacation in balmy Northern Ohio. No, it’s not climate change. It is the small furry creature called a lemming. After all, an owl has got to eat, and eat a lot in order to maintain its body temperature in the harsh arctic environment. But every so often something dramatic happens. This hinges on the lemmings which live in the same geographic area the Snowy Owl calls home.
It is thought that the migrations of Snowy Owls south are linked to lemming populations, the Snowy Owls main food source. Lemmings have a boom and bust cycle from year to year. During the boom cycle when lemming populations peak in the summer, owls will fledge several chicks instead of just one or two.
This increase in population pushes younger birds south and that is when we may see a juvenile or two in Northeastern Ohio. However, during the bust cycle, when the lemming population crashes, adult Snowy Owl have to migrate south as well to find enough food to survive the winter months. Some scientists have recently suggested there is more to the story, since Christmas Bird Counts show that the numbers fluctuate irregularly from year to year, and lemming crashes are often more regional than the large-scale geographically synchronous owl migrations. Other factors such as snowfall and extreme temperature conditions may play a role.
Keep a sharp eye; there have been reports as recently as last week of several adult Snowy Owls in our area. Some think that the “bust” cycle in the lemming population is currently happening. Sightings at Burke Lakefront airport, Edgewater Marina, Conneaut, and West Farmington have been reported. If you hope to spy this magnificent bird, now is the time. Look in wide-open areas such as corn and soybean fields for owls hunting for rats, mice, or voles. Scan snow covered areas and be on the lookout for any irregularities in the snow. A lump or dirty patch could be a Snowy Owl facing away from you. Snowy Owls like to perch in conspicuous areas, so be sure to check high points like hay bales, fence posts, telephone poles, buildings, or grain elevators. Hopefully, you will be rewarded and see the Ghost of Christmas. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience and one you won’t soon forget, just like Ebenezer.
More Nearby Nature
Streetsboro Parks: Seneca Ponds & Black Maple Woods
Saturday, December 14 (1:00-3:00pm)
Join naturalist Bob Faber to explore two preserved natural areas and some surprise accidental preserves tucked into the landscape of busy Streetsboro. Seneca Ponds is a Portage Park with trails traversing several types of woodland communities on the edge of the headwaters of Tinkers Creek. Black Maple Woods is a forested area of the city park that contains large old growth trees including the rare and unusual black maple. Leader: naturalist Bob Faber. Fee: $8 for members of the Friends of the Hiram College Field Station ($10 for non-members). Call 330.569.6003 or email email@example.com to register.
Mogadore Reservoir: Eagles, Swans & the Lost Landscape
Sunday, December 29 (1:00-3:00pm)
Walk the trails along bordering Mogadore Lake with naturalist Bob Faber. The crenulated shoreline, scattered islands, and hidden coves are clues to the rolling glacial landscape that now lies below the placid waters. As part of the Akron water supply system this area has been protected for many years. Bald eagles, tundra swans, and numerous waterfowl utilize this beautiful aquatic landscape. Leader: naturalist Bob Faber. Fee: $8 for members of the Friends of the Hiram College Field Station ($10 for non-members). Call 330.569.6003 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.