Where to see snowy owls in Wisconsin this winter
Some years, December brings a flurry of white to Wisconsin. Not snow, but snowy owls.
The beautiful birds spend their summers breeding in the Arctic, and often travel south to southern Canada and the northern United States for the winter.
But the owls' migration is never guaranteed, perhaps making it all the more special to see them.
"Owls have irruption years," said Brian Russart, natural areas coordinator for the Milwaukee County Parks, meaning sometimes they will migrate south in mass numbers, while other times they may not migrate at all. "You may go years without seeing any."
Russart, a bird-watcher, said along Lake Michigan near the Lake Express Ferry landing is one of the best spots in the Milwaukee area to try and catch a glimpse of the bird.
"That's pretty consistent every single year," he said.
Large numbers of snowy owls have made their way into Wisconsin the past few years, arriving as early as October in the past.
2012 marked the launch of Project SNOWstorm, an effort to track and study snowy owls. Twenty-two birds, including four in Wisconsin, were fitted with GPS trackers, their movements monitored by researchers. Anyone can see the birds' movements on maps at projectsnowstorm.org. The researchers hope the owls will return to within cellphone network range — that's how the GPS units transmit locations — so they can track the birds again this year.
Typically, snowy owls begin their southern march in November or December and return to the arctic in March and April.
The owls are easy to identify, even for the amateur bird-watcher. Males are predominantly white, while females and juveniles are white with dark spotting; all have large, yellow eyes. They're also quite bulky: The birds' plentiful plumage protects them from the Arctic tundra and make them North America's heaviest owl, weighing in at 4 pounds. Add in a wingspan of four feet and the bird is a stunning sight when in flight.
The beautiful owls are what drew Jim Edlhuber of Genesee to bird-watching in 2009. When a snowy owl took up residence in Waukesha, he drove into the city to see the bird and was "hooked."
"I think it's because of the beauty of it, the size of it," he said. "One never knows how many you'll see in the winter in the state here."
Edlhuber is now a member of the Benjamin F. Goss Bird Club in Waukesha and goes out three to five times a week to bird-watch, often bringing along his camera to photograph the birds he spots.
"Milwaukee's lakefront is an awesome place to bird," he said, noting he'll stop at Bradford Beach, the Lake Express Ferry landing, Lakeshore Park and others, depending on which species are migrating at the time.
As for snowy owls, "the Lake Express is a good hangout for them. Or the petroleum pier, right under the Hoan Bridge."
In general, snowy owls tend to hang out in areas similar to the their tundra breeding grounds — open expanses like agricultural fields, marshes, prairies and even airports; near bodies of water along beaches, harbors and breakwalls; and expanses of ice.
Unlike other owls, snowies are not nocturnal. But they do tend to be crepuscular — that is, more active around dawn and dusk.
Russart stressed it's important to maintain your distance while watching these birds — as with any wildlife. Getting too close "can really stress the birds," so bring binoculars or a telephoto camera lens to get a closer look.
Although many of Wisconsin's colorful songbirds migrate south in winter, it can still be an exciting time for bird-watching. With leaves off trees, birds can be easier to spot, and other species like pine siskins and purple finches often migrate into the state as well.
Here are five spots that have had documented snowy owl sightings on ebird.org. And while that's never a guarantee of seeing one again, they're all great bird-watching spots regardless.
Milwaukee Lake Express Ferry Terminal, 2330 S. Lincoln Memorial Drive, Milwaukee
Both Russart and Edlhuber said this is one of the best spots in the Milwaukee area to spot a snowy owl, with dozens of reported sightings most winters. There have also been recorded observations at the petroleum pier just to the north and the South Shore Yacht club to the south.
Buena Vista Grasslands, County Highways W and F, Banecroft
Designated an Important Bird Area in 2004, the grasslands are scattered across more than 11,000 acres in Portage County. While known mostly as a spot to see the greater prairie chicken mating ritual every March, the grasslands also attract other birds like the snowy owl. One of Project SNOWstorm's owls was caught and released here in 2013 and is named after the area. In the past, owls have been spotted along County Highway W between Townline Road and Taft Ave., just west of Banecroft.
Collins Marsh State Wildlife Area, 200021 County Highway JJ, Collins
Birdwatchers have recorded more than a dozen snowy owl sightings at this marsh in Manitowoc County in past years. The Neustadter Nature Center is a good starting point to explore the 4,200-acre property, which includes a handful of short hiking trails. Call (920) 772-4258 or see collinsmarsh.org.
Horicon Marsh, N7725 Highway 28, Horicon
This large freshwater cattail marsh is known for the massive flocks of Canada geese that migrate through every spring and fall, but more than 300 species of birds have been spotted at the 33,000-acre wetland. There were a handful of snowy owl sightings reported around the marsh in November and December. Travel along Highway 49 in the northern portion of the marsh to try to spot one yourself, or visit Feb. 4 for the Horicon Marsh Bird Club's Owl Prowl.
Lake Butte des Morts, Oshkosh, Winnebago County
This lake has been a popular spot for the owls past years, and it sometimes attracts more of the owls as it freezes. Terrell's Island, on Shubert Road off Rivermoor Road north of Highway 21, is a good spot to watch.
If you don't have any luck there, continue following Highway 41 north past Appleton toward Freedom. Several snowy owls have been reported just east of the small town along County Highway S between Highland Ave. and Section Line Road.