Julian Wilson was leaving his Lake Murray subdivision at about 7:45 a.m. Saturday to take his son to a recreational league basketball game. What he saw in his neighbor’s driveway made him hit the brakes.
A large white owl – or what looked like an owl – was sitting atop the luggage rack of his neighbor’s SUV, just chillin’.
At first, Wilson thought it was a decorative owl that people often place on the eaves of houses to scare off pigeons. Then it turned its head.
“It was 2 to 2 1/2 feet long – bigger than a horned owl,” said Wilson, a commercial real estate broker and partner with Newmark Wilson Kibler. “And when I came back (from the game) two hours later, it was still there.”
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What Wilson saw was a snowy, or arctic, owl. The largest owl in North America with a wingspan of about 5 feet, it is rarely seen outside of Canada or the far northern United States.
Wilson snapped a picture and sent it to The State. The owl’s identity was confirmed by two experts: Clemson University’s Drew Lanham, a wildlife ecologist, and Norman Smith of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who runs a bird sanctuary.
Lanham was a bit stunned.
“That’s pretty doggone rare for South Carolina — phenomenal,” he said. “It’s a major, major event. Once (bird watchers) find out the thing is around, there will be mass pandemonium for people to get to see it.”
All about the lemmings
The owl is a female, said Smith, director of the Blue Hills Trailside Museum and the Norman Smith Environmental Education Center. And she is probably an adolescent.
Although the weather here has been frigid by South Carolina standards, the owl’s appearance is more likely tied to lemmings in northern Quebec than the low temps.
Yes, lemmings – small rodents that Lanham described as “a rat, but cute. Short tails. And they are mythically known for blindly plunging off cliffs.”
Lemmings are the main food source for snowy owls in the arctic.
When the lemming population is down, the owls will lay fewer eggs, or none, both Lanham and Smith said. When lemmings are thriving, the owls will lay maybe five or six or more eggs.
When those chicks hatch and grow into adolescents, suddenly there are three times as many birds to the lemmings, and the young ones have to find other hunting grounds down south.
That spike in owls is termed an “irruption.” And the more birds, the farther south the young ones have go.
“So you’ve got this combination of an irruptive year and the weather,” Lanham said. “This is balmy for a snowy owl.”
The irruptions occur periodically, depending on the lemmings. The last big one was in 2013, when owls were spotted as far south as Florida and Texas. In the past, an arctic owl was even spotted in Bermuda.
Smith has trapped and removed hundreds of snowy owls from Boston’s Logan International Airport. (The owls, he said, like airports because the vast flat expanses remind them of their native tundra.)
The number of owls that Smith catches at Logan International is indicative of the population.
“It’s been a good breeding year in northern Quebec,” Smith said. “Normally, we’ll catch eight to 10 owls in a season. This winter so far, we’ve caught 20. In 2013, we caught 120 owls.”
Taking a nap
But the occurrence of snowy owls this far south is very, very rare.
In addition to looking for new hunting grounds, the Lake Murray owl might have flown in on the edge of the cold front that swept temperatures into the teens in the past two or three weeks.
And the food supply here is really good, Lanham said.
“We’ve got things like waterfowl, which the owl might be going after at Lake Murray, as well as cotton rats and an abundance of coots,” he said. “Owls are pretty opportunistic. And there are a lot here that feels like home to her right now.”
Lake Murray homeowner Nate Eckstrom said Wilson called him and told him that the owl was perched on his SUV.
“I watched it out the window,” Eckstrom said. “It was there for a couple of hours. It certainly wasn’t skittish.”
Smith said there are few humans in the arctic where the owl came from, and so she didn’t necessarily feel threatened by people. And because she hunts at night, the owl found the SUV a comfortable place to get some sleep during the day.
“It was getting some shut-eye,” Smith said.
Wilson said seeing large raptors is nothing unusual in his neighborhood. He has seen bald eagles, a golden eagle and numerous hawks.
“The bald eagles drop fish my backyard,” he said.
Eckstrom said the snowy owl hasn’t come back since Saturday. The warming temperatures might have caused the owl to move on, Lanham said.
“Hopefully it’s a healthy bird and can wander,” Lanham said. “Maybe it will track back north.”