Snowy owls return to Lake County

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A snowy owl perches on a rooftop in Polson.

POLSON — Ornithology enthusiasts aren’t the only ones happy to see snowy owls return to Polson, as the town’s Chamber of Commerce is excitedly unfurling the welcome mat at the birds’ taloned feet.

According to data from chamber representatives, last winter’s migratory irruption of “snowies” corresponded with a pronounced spike in commercial activity. Last January, the chamber observed 34% more phone calls and walk-in visitors than usual, which leapt to a 74% increase in February.

Denver Holt, of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, can empathize with the busy phone lines.

“We get a lot of phone calls and a lot of emails,” Holt said of all the attention the owls have generated. “We try to keep tabs on them… and get an idea of how many are in the valley.”

Though there is not an exact tally of how many snowy owls are around this winter, Holt says that there are fewer than last year’s irruption of at least 14 birds and that they are “a little harder to find” this time around.

But if one patrols the fields and scans the rooftops around their favorite hangout along the southern edge of Polson, they may just get a peek at one of the avian anomalies.

Even if you don’t spot an owl, it will be hard to miss other birdwatchers that converge on the area hoping for an encounter with Bubo scandiacus.

This past Saturday, Jim and Barbara Rychwalski of Kalispell had their mounted telescope fixed on one of the owls perched on a roof near Skyline Drive.

“We just love to see them. They’re beautiful birds,” said Jim, who had also made it a point to scope them out last year.

Besides their beauty, Rychwalski noted that the snowies are a good species to observe because “they’re one of the only owls that hunt during the day.”

That hunting ability is thought to be a big reason why snowy owls have elected to winter in the Mission Valley, where prey can be found in relative abundance. Holt believes that their unexpected return for a second consecutive winter is a strong sign that “they’ve had a good breeding year again” up in the Arctic.

Like the Polson chamber, Holt sees the birds as a key driving force behind ecotourism in the valley, which helps buoy the local economy through lean winter months.

Reflecting on the economic boost from last year’s visiting owls, Holt says, “certainly in the wintertime, (they were) one of the biggest things to bring people into the Mission Valley.”

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