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Snowy owls more visible than in decades
Snowy owls are being spotted throughout the Capital Region, the result of the largest influx of the birds in decades.

The birds have been seen in every county in the Capital Region and almost every one in New York state. In fact, this year, the Arctic natives have been seen as far south as Florida, and one brave bird even made it as far as Bermuda.

"All 11 counties along the Hudson Mohawk corridor have had snowy owl sightings," said John Loz, president of the Audubon Society of the Capital Region. "This is actually unprecedented, to have this many snowy owls."

The irruptions, as the birds’ journeys away from the Arctic are called, do occur every few years. What makes this year so unusual is the sheer number, the largest boom in sightings in decades.

"This is a species that occasionally comes out of the far north in the winter to visit us," said Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca. "Normally ,they stay way up there in the Arctic. It’s been amazing this year. I have seen 13 individuals. Normally, I don’t see any. I see one every three or four years."

The reasons are due to the supply and demand of lemmings, the small rodents the birds eat. If there is a boom year in lemmings, it leads to a growth in the number of owls.

"Snowy owls are odd in that they can change the number of eggs they lay," McGowan said.

Normally they lay three to five eggs at a time, but they can add a few more if food is plentiful.

The increased population can then have a reversing effect, lessening the available food and driving some of the birds to go farther afield to find prey.

"Owls don’t really like to share space with anyone else, including their own kids," McGowan said. The birds will claim their territory and push younger ones out. The birds being spotted in the Capital Region are all juveniles.

At Albany International Airport, three of the owls are attracting dedicated bird-watchers and casual observers hoping to get a glimpse. Snowy owls have also been spotted at the Schenectady County Airport and at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute campus.

The birds are known to like airports because they are wide-open spaces with no trees, which reminds them of home.

"That’s exactly the landscape they like: wide-open spaces where they can hunt," McGowan said.

The arrival of the owls, which are 2 feet tall but have wingspans of 5 feet, has drawn interest among enthusiasts and casual observers.

"A lot of people have been going to airports and have even been going to golf courses to see if they can find snowy owls," Loz said. "It’s been really exciting for birders and non-birders alike."

Snowy owls are active during the day, making them more visible than others of their kind.

"Most owls, if you find them during the daylight, they have their eyes squinched closed and aren’t very interesting," McGowan said.

But snowy owls are used to long stretches in which the sun never sets, he said, so they are active at all times of the day.

"They are big, they are beautiful and you can see them," said Jory Langner, president of the Hudson Mohawk Bird Club. "That makes them particularly attractive."

Members of the club have an online listserv where people write down where they have spotted various birds. They also participate in eBird, Cornell’s website for tracking sightings.

So far, the owls have not caused a problem for planes at Albany International Airport, spokesman Doug Myers said.

"We are very diligent about keeping them away from any aircraft," he said. "We are using right now pyrotechnics to keep them away from the runways. Should it become more of a problem, we might seek to have them relocated."

Airport staff members keep an eye out for the birds. If they appear to be getting too close to where airplanes fly, a firecracker is shot out of a pistol to spook them.

"We’ve seen what a bird can do to an aircraft," Myers said. "We’re very concerned about the passengers and the pilots and the crew."

The airport has seen a steady group of observers come to watch for the birds, Myers said. One airport employee snapped a photo of an owl perched on a sign that directs planes when they take off and land.

Loz said the birds tend to sit wherever they land for hours, looking for prey. Planes flying nearby don’t faze them much.

"They are not really spooked all that much," he said.

But people wanting to observe them have a limited time left. Once temperatures get much above freezing, the birds decide the hot weather is too much for them and head back to their icy home in the Arctic.

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