These white ghosts from the Arctic are being spotted throughout the northern United States this winter -- in places like Massachusetts, Michigan, and even Missouri.
And of course they're in Washington state.
Snowy owls have been seen in Ocean Shores, along the Nisqually Delta, on a rooftop in Ballard, and in Skagit County. Last week, I saw four of them close together on some private farmland bordering Puget Sound in Stanwood.
What's so cool about snowy owls?
For one thing, they're large. Weighing in at as much as five pounds with a wing span of nearly five feet, they're the largest owl in North America.
Perhaps the most striking feature is their white coloration, which makes them easy to spot, like the other big birds from the north: snow geese and trumpeter swans. But unlike the geese or swans, snowy owls don't head south every year to feed.
Most of the news stories about the owl sightings have described their visits as rare, but they're more like irregular or uncommon.
In what's called an irruption, the snowy owls show up in the states in significant numbers every six years or so. There are a couple of theories for the irregular visits, both of which are related to lemmings, the owls' main food source.
"... If you've been lucky enough to see a snowy owl down south, you should probably thank one of these guys, a lemming," Clare Kines, an economic development officer for the Arctic Bay Nunevut, wrote in his blog at 10000birds.com.
Kines noted that lemming populations in the Arctic wax and wane, and one theory suggests that when there aren't enough lemmings, the owls head south to find food. The other theory is that a strong population of lemmings creates a lot of young owls, who then get pushed south by adults to find their own feeding grounds.
Either way, snowy owl migrations follow the boom and bust periods of the lemmings, and we're the beneficiaries.
Since there aren't any lemmings in Washington state, the owls look for other prey here. They eat moles, muskrats, squirrels, mice, rats, gulls, and even medium-sized geese.
According to the Woodland Park Zoo fact sheet, snowy owls are most likely to be found along Washington's salt marshes and shorelines.
The Seattle Audubon Society said owls are seen in decent numbers at least every 10 years, most often in the coastal areas of Skagit, Whatcom, and Pacific counties.
I would add north Snohomish County to list.
The owls should be here until mid-March, when they'll head up north again to the tundra to feed and to breed in May.
That should be enough time to give you a good shot at seeing one.
Keep a pair of binoculars in your car and take them along on your next beach walk.
If the owls are there, they're not hard to find. Their large size and coloration make them easy to spot, kind of like a 2-foot-tall snowman.
Don't look for the snowy owls sitting in a big tree, like most of their colleagues. You're more likely to see them on a stump or a log along the shoreline, anywhere where they get a vantage point to watch for prey.
Snowy owl facts
Home: The Arctic tundra.
Food: They mostly eat lemmings, other rodents, or birds.
Height: 20 to 27 inches.
Lifespan: About 10 years in the wild.
Wingspan: Nearly five feet.
Weight: Four to 5 pounds.
Sightings: Along Washington shorelines or salt marshes.
Features: Yellow eyes, black beaks, no ears.
Color: Adult males are nearly all white. Females and young owls have feathers with black bars.
Source: Seattle Audubon Society, Woodland Park Zoo.
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