Snowy owls sweep lakefront

By Aviva Einhorn

Snowy Owls, best known for making an appearance as Hedwig in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, have been popping up around Chicago in unusual numbers, attracting increased interest from

city residents.

The white-feathered creatures have descended en masse from their native habitat in the extreme northern margins of the Arctic tundra. While the birds are not entirely foreign to Chicago, they have arrived in much greater numbers than before and, perhaps to their misfortune, are eliciting plenty of attention from

their admirers.

According to Roger Shamley, president of the Chicago Audubon Society, the birds are here for food, and their unusual numbers are most likely the result of a particularly good breeding season.

“They choose the spots they go to, and if the spot is not productive for them in terms of food and shelter, they will leave,” Shamley said.

Shamley said the migrant birds are often drawn to lakefront areas along Midwestern states such as Illinois, Wisconsin

and Indiana.

“One of the best places to go for the birds is Montrose Harbor, [and] the good part is if you go to Montrose frequently, you get to see a lot of migrating birds,” Shamley said. “The downside is that when photographers and reporters hear about these birds, they publicize the news.”

According to Shamley, the biggest threat to snowy owls in the city is their admirers. Photographers and enthusiasts who get too close to the owls often spook them into taking flight, making them more vulnerable to danger.

Photos and videos of snowy owls have popped up on various bird forums and blogs, including Tina Smothers’ of North Chicago. Smothers read about the owls’ arrival in the Chicago Tribune and set out for Montrose Harbor with her camera hoping to catch a glimpse of her own.

“I went out pretty early in the day, and there weren’t too many people out,” Smothers said. “I’m not an avid bird lover, but I was excited about seeing a snowy owl.”

Along with the photography Smothers published on her blog, she also posted a link to an article cautioning owl seekers to be wary of getting too close to the birds.

“You have people who go out, they see the bird, but then they want to get a closer look, a better shot, and then they start crowding the bird,” Shamley said. “Eventually, and almost inevitably, the bird flies away.”

Many people will see a bird fly off and think nothing of it. However, Shamley said a snowy owl taking flight is always a risk.

“There aren’t too many good things that can happen to an owl when he flies during the daytime,” Shamley said. “He’s not necessarily at the top of the food chain and he’s forced into a state [that is] more vulnerable to another predator. The more you make the bird move around, the more you increase the possibility that something bad will happen to it.”

Norman Smith, sanctuary director of the Mass Audubon Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Massachusetts, has been studying snowy owls for more than two decades.

“Snowy owls are a threatened species,” Smith said. “People need to be careful about disrupting the birds. During the day, when they are most keenly sought by observers, is when they are trying to rest.”

Both Smith and Shamley strongly cautioned against over circulation of a specific owl’s whereabouts and hope that enthusiasts will be sensitive to sharing the city with the new visitors.