- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MERCERSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Since the first November reports of snowy owl sightings in southern Pennsylvania, Franklin County birders have been scanning the pages of bird alert websites or scanning farm fields, looking for one of the large nighttime predators to call our own.

After all, it’s been several years since our last Arctic visitor, and this year’s invasion of snowy owls seems to be larger than in most years, say local bird watchers. A number of the owls have been reported as far as South Carolina and Georgia, and one female was seen in Little Talbot State Park in Jacksonville, Fla.

On Jan. 10, the news was out: a snowy owl was sighted along Hissong Road east of Mercersburg.

Joyce Stuff, Mercersburg, said she first saw it while she was walking on the evening of Jan. 8.

Rhetta Martin, Greencastle, who watched it Saturday and Sunday with her husband, Eric, said the folks who lived on the farm had seen this one since Christmas. Eric learned that one was seen Dec. 9 in a field across from James Buchanan High School.

The birding world takes these rare sightings seriously. People drive from miles away - from states away - to get a look at a snowy owl. The bird’s size alone makes the drive worth it. At four pounds, it’s the largest in weight of North America’s owls; only the great gray owl of Canada’s boreal forests is taller. And chances of seeing a large owl that does little but sleep in the open during the day are near 100 percent.

Next to the vehicles perched along the road edge, bird watchers are using binoculars to get a closer look. Some set up telescopic lenses, longer than their forearms, on tripods.

Nate Harker of Newry (Blair County) said he drove nearly two hours in hopes of getting a photograph of the bird. He heard about the sighting on eBird and got the GPS coordinates from a Mercersburg photographer who had posted photographs of a snowy owl on Flickr.

“It was a reputable source, and the weather was right,” Harker said. “I figured we’d scoot down.”

He timed his camera to take a photo every 10 seconds of the owl perched sleepily atop a silo. The bird occasionally yawned, or stretched a wing.

Out of 100 pictures Harker figures he will keep one.

“Nobody’s going to believe we got pictures of a snowy owl,” said Patrick McElwee of Saxton, who also photographed the owl.

“We got the proof,” Harker said.

To many birders, the proof is just the beginning.

Veteran birder Dale Gearhart, Greencastle, took a photo Friday from 75 to 100 yards away. He compared his photo with one taken by another person. The two images were definitely not of the same bird, he said.

“One is a female, one a male,” Gearhart said with confidence. The males will always be whiter than females, and he’s sure it’s a first-year male because of the amount of black on its head. As they age, the birds’ black-edged feathers become more snowy white.

While scouting on Monday, Gearhart finally saw both owls, a great distance away from one another.

The reason for their being here, how long they’ll stay and what they’re eating are not easy answers, but local folks freely quote information they pick up from expert sources on birding websites.

“There’s just been an explosion in the number of young hatchlings this year, it’s almost too much competition for the food that is there, so the young males are just moving south,” said Dave Cooney, a Conococheague Audubon Society member. Last year, the lemming population burst, causing nature to kick in and produce more young owls, he said. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in years of lemming population booms, snowy owls can raise double or triple the usual number of young.

“Most of the ones we’re seeing are younger adults,” Cooney said.

While off their familiar tundra, the owls sit in open fields looking for mice and voles, even rabbits and other birds. Gearhart said they’ll rest during the day in patches of snow, or fly onto a post.

How long the two owls will stay is anybody’s guess. In 2012, a snowy owl stayed for much of the midwinter along Mud Level Road northeast of Shippensburg.

Look carefully as you drive past our acres of harvested corn fields; a snowy owl often sits on the ground a hundred yards or so from observers. A milk jug, a grocery bag, a five-gallon bucket or a chunk of ice can be mistaken for a white bird, Harker said.

“You have to have a good set of binoculars or other optics,” he said.


Jim Hook contributed to this story.





Information from: Public Opinion, https://www.publicopiniononline.com

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