Snowy Owl buffetting wind Photo Credit: Dick Walker

Four years ago, thousands of Snowy Owls stormed the northern United States, taking up posts in surroundings drastically different from the flat Arctic tundra over which they typically preside. They were part of the largest Snowy Owl irruption, or influx of a species into a place they don’t usually live, the U.S. has seen since the 1920s.

If you missed it, you might be in luck. Project SNOWstorm, a volunteer-fueled Snowy Owl-tracking organization founded after that irruption, predicts another wave of Arctic raptors will hit North America this winter.

Though Snowy Owl migration patterns are mostly mysterious, there have been some tell-tale signs that the birds are on their way. For one, some Snowy Owls already seem to be retracing the last irruption’s process. It appears that big southward movements occur about once every four years. That’s because lemmings, their preferred prey, go through regional population explosions at about the same interval. No matter how many ultimately show up, these birds are tough. People often assume that if they see an Arctic bird in the lower 48, it must be sick or starving. In reality, these Snowy Owls are fairly fat and healthy, and will eat anything they find.

Early stateside migrators have also been spotted. Hundreds have flocked to the Northeast and Upper Midwest, and single birds have been spotted as far south as Oklahoma, Missouri, and North Carolina—and their numbers are building faster than they did in 2013.

Numerous Snowy Owl sightings have just recently been reported east of the continental divide in Montana and one was sighted on the Bigfork Christmas Bird Count so get ready to enjoy these Arctic visitors!

adapted from National Audubon newsletter