This past week I took a walk along the lake shore as winter begins to settle in. While walking, I noticed about eight people, with cameras and spotting scopes gathered at Wendy Park just west of downtown Cleveland. My own curiosity of nature and wildlife told me this was worth checking out.
What were they looking at? A snowy owl perched on the break wall about three hundred yards away.
Snowy owls have made their way to Northeast Ohio in an irruption, a natural increase in animal population. The last irruption happened in the fall of 2013. Many have seen these white, fluffy owls at places like the Lorain Harbor, Edgewater and Wendy Parks have all reported multiple sightings.
Snowy owls are some of the most recognizable birds in the world thanks to author, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where Harry’s pet, Hegwig, is a snowy owl.
My curiosity expanded about these nomadic owls, which led me to the Medina Raptor Center. There, a group of volunteers rehabilitate raptors in an attempt to release them back into the wild. They have a snowy owl on hand, Ella who is used for educational purposes after coming to the center in 2008 when she was hit by a car. She was rehabilitated and eventually released into the wild. But after hitting a power line shortly after he release, Ella found her way back to the center with a broken wing and has now made it her permanent home.
Jaime Mautz, a volunteer at the Medina Raptor Center, says this irruption, of snowy owls can be attributed to “a growing lemming population, which serves as a primary food source for snowy owls in the Arctic.”
“An average snowy owl lays around three eggs when breeding,” says Mautz. “With the lemming population increasing over the last three to five years, more food equals more eggs.” Some snowy owls lay up to 11 eggs with the increased food source.
Snowy owls are native to the Arctic but due to prey populations fluctuating in the tough winters, become nomadic. Northeast Ohio is now reaping the benefits as many have seen and photographed these birds this year. “They are usually here until March or April when they will move back north,” Mautz added.
“Once [snowy owls] are old enough to fly, the parents kick them out,” said Mautz. “They then fly south to places like Cleveland.” Most the birds here are juveniles as many of the older adults are dominant and don’t have to move as far in winter.
Snowy owls are “apex” predators, which means they are on top of the food chain. They can hear their prey under packs of snow and their talons can apply pressure of 500 psi.
With no trees in the Arctic, snowy owls stay close to the ground and are active throughout the day unlike other owls, which are most active at night. If you want to catch a glimpse of these owls between now and March, there is no magic time of day. Just be sure to bring binoculars or some type of magnifier as they can be far away.
The Medina Raptor Center sees over 400 birds per year and once rehabilitated, releases them across the region including areas in Lorain County. If you see an injured snowy owl this year or any other bird of prey contact them for the best possible care.