SCHENECTADY — A rare winter visitor presented itself at Mohawk Harbor on Tuesday, flying in and roosting on an apartment terrace.
It was a snowy owl, one of many that are pushing south into the United States from Canada this year. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology said the influx of the speckled white raptors — the largest species of owl in North America, by weight — is an "irruption," an above-average number of birds spending time outside their normal habitat range.
When they come this far south, snowy owls gravitate to airports and the edges of bodies of water, which would explain the sighting Tuesday at the River House, a new apartment building along the Mohawk River. The owl was seen and photographed by a rental agent at the building and took wing shortly afterward.
Marc Devokaitis, a Cornell Lab public information specialist, said snowy owl sightings are running above average this year, but below the irruption of 2013-14, which was the largest in decades. In the earlier irruption, snowy owls were reported as far south as Bermuda and northern Florida.
“It’s looking pretty similar, except that it’s not as far south,” Devokaitis said — Delaware and eastern Maryland appear to be about as far down the East Coast as the owls progressed so far this year.
“What strikes me is the density of observations,” he said.
Snowy owls spend their summers in northernmost Canada, and in winter typically move south within Canada or to the northern border region of the United States. In some winters, though, they range well south into the United States. This is one of those years.
“They’re coming down looking for food,” Devokaitis said. “I think it’s clear it’s an above-average year.”
Breakfast, lunch and dinner for the snowy owl is lemmings, whenever possible. When the population of the arctic rodent is plentiful, snowy owls will lay more eggs. When the lemming population crashes, snowy owls produce fewer eggs. Snowy owls have even been observed to build nests of dead lemmings in good years, so that the large brood of owlets has a ready supply of food.
When snowy owls move to southern Canada or the United States, they hunt rodents and smaller birds. Waterfowl are a favorite food.
The website eBird keeps a database of bird sightings reported by the bird-watching community. In the heart of the Capital Region, eBird shows Albany International Airport as the snowy owl hotspot. Farther out, there have been heavy concentrations of sightings just east of Fort Edward/Hudson Falls and north of Little Falls/west of Dolgeville.
The snowy owl is an uncommon visitor to Schenectady, to judge by sightings reported to eBird — just three in 35 years. More have been reported at Schenectady County Airport in Glenville than in the city itself.
Devokaitis said it’s OK to photograph snowy owls from a respectful distance — they apparently aren’t spooked by humans. It’s illegal to harm them, though.