CHICAGO (CBS) — Illinois rarely sees more than a handful, but this year, birdwatchers have already recorded nearly two dozen sightings of the arctic spotted owl.
Capturing images of the majestic snowy owl has Scott Judd’s spirits soaring, CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reports.
“The first one I saw, I got it in my scope from afar,” Judd said. “I was doing one of these just scanning everything.”
Over the past few weeks, the birder has had at least three encounters. “To see an arctic bird sitting on a light pole along Sheridan Road is kind of surreal,” he said.
Judd spotted the owls along the lake in Evanston, Rogers Park and Montrose Harbor, all of which are a long way from their natural environment in Canada and the arctic.
“You can’t even believe what you are seeing at first. This is something that lives in the tundra and breeds up there,” he said.
Liza Lehrer, who works at the Lincoln Park Zoo, said, “We are seeing a big, what they call an ‘eruption,’ or a burst of activity.”
The Lincoln Park Zoo is the permanent home to five snowy owls, who have piercing yellow eyes and bright white feathers.
“There’s a lot of juveniles who are looking for food,” Lehrer said, adding that a spike in snowy owl births up North is eating up their natural diet of rodents. “They are now kind of expanding their range and looking for food sources in other places,” such as Northern Illinois.
According to Judd, however, that may not be a safe task for the wilderness birds. He says they are unaccustomed to people and cars, and therefore don’t know how to interact with either. In at least three such cases, owls have been injured. Wildlife centers had to step in to nurse each back to health.
Though beautiful, birders say it’s best to enjoy them from afar.
“These birds are so remote, they come to a place like this for a while — it’s kind of like a gift, and if you know where to look you can get a minute with them,” Judd said.
The last time we saw a spotted owl eruption in Northern Illinois was in 2013 — about 270 of the owls were documented that year.