Seeing a snowy owl is rare, and that’s understandable.
They live and breed in the Arctic tundra, rarely venturing south in large numbers.
But some lucky folks recently glimpsed the beloved raptor in Morgantown.
Word quickly spread on social media, and people were on the lookout despite chilly temperatures.
After all, it was the chance of a lifetime.
And many, including some youngsters, can now cross this off their bird bucket-list.
Some saw it perched on a utility pole near the University Town Center.
Others found it behind the Morgantown Mall.
Even though it’s a busy commercial area, the raptor seemed unimpressed.
It also didn’t seem afraid, and that makes sense, said Joey Herron, who credited a birder friend for making the initial discovery.
“After all, you have to consider that this owl is from tundra and this is very likely the first encounter with people. There was no sign of fear or distress, just a sense of watching to see what was going on,” said Herron.
This particular owl was probably a young female, based on its markings.
While the head feathers are white, body feathers have have darker markings.
Females usually have more since it helps camouflage them while nesting on the ground.
Snowy owls are also known as the Arctic or great white owl.
It is one of the largest species of owl in the world, and can have a wingspan of 4 ½ to 5 ½ feet.
A long-time bird lover, he spreads his expertise via Herron Birding Facebook posts.
It’s his online way of reaching out and educating others, but he also holds outdoor sessions for folks interested in his bird banding work.
He is just concluding his fall season at Valley Falls State Park working with saw-whet owls as they migrate through north central West Virginia.
In the spring he did similar public sessions at Pricketts Fort State Park with songbirds.
Even though he’s always loved owls, this latest adventure will always be special.
“This a first, a record for Monongalia County, and only my third snowy owl in five years here in West Virginia after never seeing one in my previous 40 years,” he said.
“I saw my first ever in Canada 25 years ago with my best birding buddy Brete Griffin, and I have never forgotten it.”
Others can now boast about having had a similar experience.
It isn’t clear why this owl chose this route.
But snow owls sometimes come further south in a phenomenon known as an irruption.
Basically it’s when more than the usual numbers migrate south, sometimes into Virginia and as far as North Carolina.
Efforts are underway to track and better understand these irruptions, but it’s a complex task that is still not well understood even by ornithologists.
An abundance of food during the summer breeding season, including lemmings, may lead to a larger than usual number of eggs.
That happened a few years ago on Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic. Booming lemming populations resulted in a banner nesting season.
In the end, an usually large number of irrupting snowy owls moved into the Northeast and Great Lakes the following winter, according to Project Snow Storm.
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It’s clear from the comments that this owl won’t soon be forgotten.
After about a day or so, it disappeared and that’s to be expected.
“She’s probably flown on, and we wish her well,” Herron said.