Is it a bird? A plane? A creature flown out of Harry Potter? Or a white paper bag frozen in a field?
This year, it may be a snowy owl.
The white bird with bright, yellow eyes, huge talons and a five-foot wingspan is usually a rare sight in Chesapeake Country. So rare that the first-ever snowy owl sighting and photo was recorded in Calvert County this week.
The big bird was perched on a Ford tractor in Prince Frederick.
It wasn’t the only snowy owl to visit Chesapeake Country this late autumn. Other birds were sighted in Galesville, Gibson Island, near the Naval Academy, Quiet Waters Park, Sandy Point State Park and Shady Side. Snowy owls have been seen in all three of Delaware’s counties.
More of these majestic Arctic owls may be on the way, ranging south this winter in what could be record numbers.
“The numbers reported so far are unheard of,” says Battle Creek naturalist Andy Brown. “In past years, we’d see a handful.”
Snowy owls mainly feed on lemmings. Lemming populations are cyclic. In years when lemmings are few, snowy owls leave their natural habitat in Arctic regions and fly south searching for food.
“There’s typically an irruption every four or five years,” says Annapolis birder Dan Haas. “This year, the numbers are staggering, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Brown and Haas agree that the likely combination of a successful breeding year and a bad crash in the food source are the reason for this year’s snowy owl visitations.
Facebook pages Anne Arundel and Maryland Birding, founded by Haas, have gathered some 200 reports of sightings in the last two weeks.
If you’re lucky enough to happen upon a snowy owl, report sightings and send photos to www.eBird.org.
Both Calvert and Annapolis residents can also send sightings and photos to Andy Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Snowy owls are a protected species and have no experience with humans, so keep a safe distance between you and these majestic creatures, both for their safety and yours.