Snowy owls spotted in Southwest Michigan

A snowy owl sits at the breakwall of the mouth of the Galien River in New Buffalo on Nov. 29.

Snowy owls have been turning up over the past few weeks over the southern Great Lakes, including two sightings in Berrien County.

On November 26, Sharon Klemm of St. Joseph reported a snowy owl, in the vicinity of Whitwam Drive and M-63 in St. Joseph. Klemm first observed the bird while she was traveling south on M-63, noticing the big white owl perched atop a streetlight along the highway.

To my knowledge the owl was not relocated. However, the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor waterfront has traditionally harbored snowy owls during November through March, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for additional owls.

A second snowy owl was located on November 29, seen perched on the breakwall at the mouth of the Galien River in New Buffalo. The owl was photographed by Roberta Colwell of Berrien Springs and her son, Caleb Colwell. The bird was seen by several observers, but has not been reported since that day.

The snowy owl sightings from November in Berrien County represent the southernmost records in Michigan so far this season.

Snowy owls have a circumpolar distribution, meaning they summer around the shores of the Arctic Ocean and nearby treeless tundra, not only in Canada and Alaska, but Russia, Norway, and Sweden. There are breeding records of the snowy owl in northern Scotland.

In winter, the species migrates southward, but numbers vary each year depending on the availability of the food supply. Some years the species irrupts southward in great numbers.

The species is reported in Berrien County annually, usually from November to February. Snowy owls have arrived locally some years in early October, but late November is the average.

Local, historic records indicate that the snowy owl’s migration dates have remained the same over the last 140-plus years. For several years the oldest known snowy owl report from Berrien County was one observed on November 27, 1879, atop the Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, as reported by the St. Joseph Herald, a forerunner of the Herald-Palladium. The owl was shot at by Samuel Hannon, but was apparently unharmed when it flew off to the east.

Within the last year I became aware of an older record, reported by the St. Joseph Saturday Herald in its October 22, 1863 edition: “We discovered in our accustomed walk this morning a large white owl, almost in the centre of town (St. Joseph), flying leisurely around as if reconnoitering for a place as headquarters in the town.”

Jonathan Wuepper is an area naturalist. Report your sightings to him at wuepperj@gmail.com.