An irruption of snowy owls is thrilling birders around the region.
DAMON POINT, Grays Harbor County — They arrive on silent wings, visitors from the Arctic.
Snowy owls usually aren’t seen around here. Yet, birders have been treated to a blizzard of snowies in Washington state since fall. Called an irruption, these periodic blessings occur when the birds come in large numbers to our region.
The last irruption was in 2006, and it caused a sensation, with the birds seen even in Seattle’s Discovery Park. So it goes this time, too: An owl graced the Paccar truck plant in Renton in one recent sighting.
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They will be here until about March, feasting mostly on voles and other small mammals, resting and fattening before returning to the Arctic for the breeding season.
They are circumpolar birds, usually living in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other sites north of Alaska’s Brooks Range, as well as in Scandinavia, Russia, Greenland, Siberia and other Arctic lands. A few overwinter in the Northern Plains and New England.
Small numbers of snowies typically are seen in Washington east of the Cascades, dotting the open lands around Moses Lake, Grant County; Bridgeport, Douglas County; and the Waterville Plateau, also in Douglas County, said Brian Bell, a Seattle Audubon master birder and professional birding guide based in Woodinville.
But since fall, the birds have been spreading across the United States in great numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports. Nearly 2 feet tall, the predominantly white owls are hard to miss.
In Washington, sightings have been pouring in across the region, from Skagit County to the Pacific Coast. Elsewhere, sightings have been reported as far east as Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Massachusetts and as far south as Kansas.
Snowies also have been spotted in Connecticut, Maine, New York, Vermont, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and North Dakota.
There are two schools of thought as to why the owls are here: a shortage of food, typically lemmings, up north. Or a bumper crop of young owls this year, pushing some of the young south as they temporarily disperse to new territory.
They are a particular delight to birders. Resplendent not only in their beauty, they also conveniently like to perch on high points in open areas, such as beaches and airports. And they are active in the photogenic, crepuscular hours, on the hinge between night and day.
“Look at that,” Paul Bannick, a Seattle-based professional wildlife photographer, said as a snowy lifted silently from a driftwood stump on windswept Damon Point at Ocean Shores, in Grays Harbor County.
With its tundralike landscape, Damon Point has attracted a large aggregation of snowies — and many birders have flocked to appreciate them.
As he photographed the snowies, Bannick worked carefully, remaining motionless and keeping a long distance to avoid changing the birds’ behavior. If a bird moves, turns its head or even notices him, that is too much disturbance for his brand of photography, which is to capture birds in their natural element and behavior.
Avoiding stress to the birds is especially critical during winter, when every calorie of energy counts.
And what marvels they are: Gliding on silent wings, snowies are among the largest owls, with a wingspan that can reach nearly 5 feet. They also are among the heaviest, weighing in at 5 pounds, a flying sack of sugar.
Their direct, yellow-eyed gaze and sharp talons help create a commanding presence. Their immaculate feathers gleam in the long, lush winter light.
At Damon Point, the owls were noble in their erect posture, seeming to pose on silvery driftwood stumps, surveying their domain. Not for nothing is a group of owls called a parliament.
To Bannick, the snowies’ periodic visits are living proof of the linked landscapes that make up their home, and ours.
“There are so many birds reliant on the Arctic that we see here,” Bannick said. “They are a great reminder that these places are all connected.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736
On Twitter @lyndavmapes.