Pine City, has become a hotspot for owl watching enthusiasts. A snowy owl has taken up residence near a hobby farm and hayfield west of Pine City, and people have been lining the road for several days just to get a glimpse.
Word got out of a snowy owl sighting and spread like wildfire via social media and notification apps from organizations such as Minnesota Birding News, American Birding Association, ebird.org, and Owl About Minnesota with people from across the state gathering with their zoom lenses to capture a photo of the owl.
Here’s how the birding apps work. For example, in your Google Play or Apple App Store, you can search and download “Minnesota Birding News.” When you open the free app, you can search “Mn Bird Sightings by County.” There you will see tabs titled “Hotspots” and “Recent Visits” where bird watchers can post what they’ve seen and where they’ve seen it. Another owl-specific organization, Owl About Minnesota, has a facebook page that updates members on owl sightings, their locations and other owl news. These sites and apps, along with word of mouth, have drawn a crowd around our Pine County snowy owl.
Snowy owls, unlike most owls, are diurnal which means they hunt and are active during both day and night which, besides the fact that the owl is a rare bird, could explain the abundance of watchers and photographers gathered each day.
Though not on the endangered species list, the bird is considered protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act because there are an estimated 300,000 snowy owls left in the world according to Audubon.org.
Some may speculate that we are seeing the snowy owl in the lower parts of its habitat region (another one was recently spotted east of Hinckley) because of the abundance of field mice the region has had over the last year.
Dale Gentry Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology, Department of Biology and Biochemistry, at University of Northwestern, St. Paul said of the rare sighting, “We do have some understanding of why some birds (especially some owls) have a tendency to show up outside of their range. Their diet is made up primarily of small mammals and those populations can be quite variable. In years when small mammal populations are low, owls and other predators will become nomadic and go looking for food. We call these types of birds irruptive migrants because they occasionally “irrupt” out of their normal ranges and show up elsewhere. We always expect a few birds to show up out of their ranges in the winter, usually juveniles, but some years it happens more frequently. I haven’t followed the numbers, but it does seem that there have been quite a few Snowy Owls showing up in the United States this year.”
Based on the owl’s markings, Gentry believes the owl is an adult male. “Females are usually darker, and males are usually whiter, but there are many that are impossible to determine with certainty,” said Gentry. “However, this one looks to be on the lighter side, and I would say it is likely male.”