2012: The Year of the Invasion

2012 has been the year of the invasion. An invasion of normally arctic-dwelling bird species has descended upon the northern tier of the United States. There have been upwards of 50-60 separate Snowy Owl observations in the state of Montana. The causes for the invasion are, most likely, due to a couple of synergistic factors: the owls have enjoyed several good breeding seasons in the North and the vole population in Montana has exploded. This event is called an irruption. The summer of 2011 saw massive numbers of lemmings scurrying across the tundra like fleas on the rump of a cur dog, and, therefore, providing the owls with more food than normal for their ravenous young. The 2011 crop of young owlets experienced higher than normal survivability due to the surplus of lemmings. This substantial increase in the population has meant that the available hunting territories in the North are over-capacity this winter, which has force many owls further south than usually seen. The great thing is once these owls made it south, they were treated to tons of voles here as well. The perfect storm of rodent population fluctuations and competitive territory allocation has led to the most enjoyable event for us Montana birders.

The best Snowy Owl image I have been able to capture.

The best Snowy Owl image I have been able to capture.

Snowy Owl being not the least bit concerned

Snowy Owl being not the least bit concerned

Presumptive Meadow Vole aka Lunch

Presumptive Meadow Vole aka Lunch

Summary of Montana Snowy Owl for 2011-2012

LOCATION NUMBER
Benton Lake 3
Big Hole Valley 1
Bowdoin NWR 2
Broadview 1
Camas Prairie 1
Charlo 3
Coalwood 1
Coffee Creek 1
First People’s Buffalo Jump 1
Fort Benton (Hwy. 223, Milepost 7) 1
Fort Peck 4
Foster Creek 1
Four Corners 1
Freezout Lake WMA 2
Galen 1
Hardin 1
Helena Valley 1
Hobson 1
Joplin (17 miles south) 1
Kalispell 7
McNeil Slough CBC 1
Miles City 3
North of Dodson 4
Opheim 1
Polson 11
S. Philips County 3
Rudyard (21 miles south/5 miles north) 2
South of Turner 1
South Valley County 6
Tiber Dam 4
Westby 2
West of Glasgow 1
Wilson Butte Road 1

The red numbered pins reflect generalized counts for an area. The yellow diamond pins represent precise observation locations.
Download Google Earth version of this map


Another irruptive species that has been seen rather readily this winter has been the Common Redpoll. Common Redpoll irruptions are due to the success of the previous year’s seed crop.  With lots of food available, the survivability of the young redpolls are increased. However, the next year these survivors are pressed to find food sources. So, they move farther south, and they end up on the alder trees in my little neighborhood. I see these birds in small flocks of around 20 individuals that have continually worked my neighborhood for the past 3 weeks. Occasionally, they are in mixed-species flocks with Black-capped Chickadees and American Goldfinches.

Common Redpoll in an alder

Common Redpoll in an alder

Common Redpoll handing on an alder catkin

Common Redpoll handing on an alder catkin

Common Redpoll portrait

Common Redpoll portrait

Written by Radd Icenoggle

I am a native Montanan, who has spent a lifetime as an outdoors and wildlife enthusiast. I earned a degree in biology with an emphasis on habitat relations. During my studies, I had the great fortune to research and compose a thesis that explored the effects of slope aspect on...
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6 Comments

Bob Henderson

Your map and summary are a good service. Will be interesting to see what they look like at the end of Feb.

You probably know that the snowies are being seen in many unusual locations this winter. I saw one in central Kansas about 2 weeks ago. I understand there are reports from Oklahoma and New Jersey also. A friend and his family saw several near Greys Harbor, WA. So, this is a very wide-spread phenomenon.

I’m getting fired up on these Snowies!

Reply
Kate Stone

Hi Radd- One of my groups picked up a snowy owl on the Big Hole Christmas Bird Count, 12/23/11. It was on the Upper North Fork Road northwest of Wisdom. They thought it was a juvenile. Several people have gone back since but it has not been seen again. Thanks for making the map! Kate Stone

Reply
Lou Hanebury

Greg Liebelt, our Environmental Protection Specialist out of Fort Peck, documented a snowy owl on one of Western Area Power Administrations power poles in Valley County, about 5 miles east of Frazer, MT.

Reply
Jim Greaves

Radd — Thanks for making the map and keeping us up to date on Snowy invasion! Hope to see you sometime soon in Sanders Co — Jim Greaves

Reply
Mike Martin

Hi Radd
My birding partner and I are coming to Ninepipes area on Feb. 4 in search of Snowy Owls. It would be a lifer for both of us. For me, it is one of many to come I hope. For my partner, an 80 year old expert birder from Santa Barbara, it is one of the few that she has missed. She has well over 1000 life birds on her list but really wants a Snowy Owl.
I have seen your clever and informative map. It is great! I do have one question concerning the lat/lon data that comes up when spots are clicked and directions sought. Are the lat/lon numbers the actual location of the sightings, or the general area? That and any advice concerning birding in Montana this time of year would be greatly appreciated.
Best birding
Mike Martin
Oceanside, CA

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