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January is prime time for snowy owl sightings along Cleveland's lakeshore

PHOTOS: Snowy owls return to Lake Erie
Posted at 2:54 PM, Jan 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-03 14:54:15-05

CLEVELAND — One of the best things about living near a lake during the winter is the possibility of a snowy owl sighting along Cleveland's Lake Erie shoreline.

Cleveland Metroparks Naturalist Marty Calabrese says January is “primetime” to spot these incredible raptors, in part because of their predictable presence, which varies year-to-year.

Their seasonal arrival puts bird watchers on high alert, as a new year provides a fresh slate to record these arctic wonders.

“Snowy owl sightings have been thin, but steady, coming from Burke and Hopkins airports,” Calabrese said.

Cleveland photographer Gabe Leidy spotted a snowy owl while finishing up a six mile kayaking trip in Cleveland on Dec. 28.

If you want to spot these birds, Calabrese said he takes his children near Burke Lakefront Airport for a great vantage point. Those interested can drive along North Marginal Road, accessed from East 9th Street, to gate 11 or 12 for a chance to see a snowy owl perched along the shoreline.

"Peering north across the Burke runways, you have a good chance of spotting a two-foot-tall beast of an owl at ground level," Calabrese said. "This wide-open habitat mirrors their arctic tundra breeding and hunting grounds. If your owl prowl is a fail, the occasional plane launch and landings can also impressive for kids young and grown."

The largest irruption, a phenomenon that happens when snowy owls come flooding down from the north to a specific area, in the Northeast and the Great Lakes regions in a century was during the winter of 2013-14, according to data from Project SNOWStorm , a group dedicated to tracking snowy owls. Smaller irruptions happen, on average, every four or five years, with mega-irruptions happening once or twice in a lifetime.

The seasonal distribution of snowy owls is dictated not only by the day-to-day weather but by what food is available.

Calabrese said because lemmings— the snowy owl prey supply— are plentiful in their wintering grounds this year, there is no reason for them to travel south to Cleveland for food. Lemmings, usually found near the Arctic in tundra biomes, resemble a rodent between a mole and a muskrat.

If you hear of a viewable snowy owl, naturalists like Calabrese encourage you to get outside and see it from a respectable distance.

RELATED: Ohio's first snowy owl spotted at Mosquito Lake