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A little before noon on the Fourth of July, Alice and John Droske of Elk Mound hopped into their Jeep and headed off in no particular direction. It was sunny, 80 degrees and a great day for a ride with the top off. Just west of Eau Claire, Alice spotted something big and white, sitting on a roadside billboard. It was a snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca), not something they expected to see in the middle of summer
The Droskes were hesitant to report it to local birders. After all, if the bird didn't stick around, no one would believe them. As they drove through the same neighborhood later in the month and again in August, the conspicuous Arctic bird was hard to miss.
Finally in mid-September, confident that the owl was going to stay, Alice Droske called Charles Kemper, President of the Chippewa Wildlife Society.
He was skeptical at first. "It's extraordinary to see one this time of year," Kemper said, but he took Alice Droske up on her offer to show him. Sure enough, they found it, perched on a truck trailer parked behind a shop on Highway 12.
No one is certain when the bird arrived, where she came from or why she decided to stay.
It's not unusual to see these "ghosts of the tundra" in Wisconsin between November and March when they range south looking for food, but it is extremely unusual for a snowy to summer in the lower 48 states. Snowy owls have only been recorded in Wisconsin nine times during the past 50 years during summer, said Bob Domagalski of Menomonee Falls, who keeps bird records for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO). Only one bird, spotted on August 17, 1963, "likely stayed the entire summer," he said.
Why this particular owl stayed in Eau Claire is the subject of conjecture.
"She was probably ill or injured earlier in the year, and for whatever reason didn't make it back north," said Janine Polk, a WSO member who lives in Eau Claire.
The bird's age could also be a factor, according to Paul Kerlinger, author of How Birds Migrate. "A number of species fly south and don't fly back north until they are two years old and capable (or almost capable) of nesting," he said. "Not having to migrate back and forth two more times may reduce the risk to a bird, especially if lots of food is available."
Despite an earlier unconfirmed report that two snowy owls had been spotted in the same neighborhood, experts say it was probably not a breeding pair. Snowy owls are not likely to breed or nest in Wisconsin, said Paul Johnsgard, author of North American Owls: Biology and Natural History. Their breeding behavior is triggered by changes in day length. In the Arctic, that peaks with 24 hours of continuous sunshine in June and July. In Wisconsin, we get a maximum of 15 hours, 23 minutes of sunlight on the June solstice, and this photoperiod makes it unlikely that snowy owls would be triggered into breeding behavior.
"The bottom line is that we just don't know why they stayed so far south," said Kerlinger. "Maybe that's why some of us go into biology – to solve some of the little mysteries."
Heide Hughes writes from Nelson.