The Wetland Explorer-Winter Visitors

This article appeared in the Great Bend Tribune on Sunday, February 16 as part of the monthly KWEC column, The Wetland Explorer.

Often, when people talk about big white birds being seen at Cheyenne Bottoms, the immediate thing that comes to mind is whooping cranes, the endangered birds that migrate through the Cheyenne Bottoms area every Spring and Fall.  However, when visitors come in the Kansas Wetlands Education Center this time of year and talk about seeing big white birds, there is a chance they are talking about a very different winter visitor: snowy owls.

 In the past month, there have been as many as three snowy owls reported at one time at Cheyenne Bottoms.

 Snowy owls are an interesting and beautiful bird.  They are one of the larger owl species, with most snowies being larger than our common great-horned owls.  The adult males are typically pure white in color, and juveniles and females are white with variable amounts of dark streaks on their bellies, backs, and wings.

 Snowy owls nest in the Arctic tundra and typically spend their winters throughout Canada.  So, what might a snowy owl be doing at Cheyenne Bottoms?  Is it lost?  Snowy owl populations are very dependent on their prey, which in the arctic, includes mostly lemmings, a small rodent.  As with many predators, when lemming populations are very good, snowy owl reproduction is very successful.  If too many young snowy owls are produced during the breeding season, competition for food and space increases.  Consequently, some snowy owls are driven south out of their range during the winter.  This is called an irruption.  Often, the birds will fly south until they find habitats that simulate their native tundra; anything with wide open spaces, hence the attraction of Cheyenne Bottoms in the winter time.  This year, there have been many reports of snowy owls around large airport runways on the east coast.  If you think about it, a runway could look pretty attractive to a tundra-loving bird.

 Unfortunately, nature is cruel, and many of the snowy owls that come this far south during the winter will not survive to make it back north.

 Depending on the year, snowy owls at Cheyenne Bottoms are not extremely rare.  In 1974, the Cheyenne Bottoms Christmas Bird Count reported nine snowy owls.  In 2011-2012, the U.S. saw thousands of snowy owls during the winter months.  As many as six snowy owls were reported at one time at Cheyenne Bottoms, and hundreds of reports were recorded across Kansas.  During that year, one bird even made its way all the way to Hawaii.  This winter, the snowy owl irruption has been large as well; however, more birds are ending up on the east coast, than in the central U.S.  Florida has seen a large number of snowies this winter.

 To view the snowy owls at Cheyenne Bottoms, usually a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope will be required, as they often are pretty far from the accessible dike roads.  Often times, the snowy owls have been seen either perched on one of the concrete hunting blinds that dot the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area pools, or the owls may be seen standing out on the ice covering the pools.  Recent snow cover makes spotting a white bird that much more difficult.  That is the challenge of bird watching.

 Until the other big white birds return in a few months, take some time out this winter to enjoy the wetlands and what they have to offer.  It is logical that the three snowy owls that have been occasionally seen in the last month will stick around for the next month.  If you are interested in trying your hand at finding them, plan a trip driving through Cheyenne Bottoms.   And, be sure to stop by the KWEC; our staff can give you an update on recent sightings, so you can focus your efforts.

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About Curtis Wolf

Curtis Wolf is the site manager at Ft. Hays State University's Kansas Wetlands Education Center (KWEC) at Cheyenne Bottoms. Curtis received a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and a Master of Science degree in Biology at FHSU, studying freshwater mussels. Before taking the job at the KWEC, Curtis was a biology instructor at Barton County Community College in Great Bend.

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