Earl Nelson heads to Antelope Island about once a week to take pictures of the numerous wildlife found on the Great Salt Lake landmark.
In early December, the West Haven resident got more than he ever dreamed of when he spotted something large and white while driving on the causeway.
"As we got closer I realized it was a snowy owl. I had always wanted to see one, but never thought it would happen in Utah," Nelson said.
The snowy owl is listed as an "accidental" species in Utah, with birding officials requesting information on any sighting. The raptors nest in the tundra region of the Arctic and typically spend their winters throughout Canada and the northern fringes of the United States.
Snowy owls are so rare in Utah that some professional birders questioned Nelson’s report. At least until they saw the pictures.
Nelson captured images of the owl in midday standing on the banks of the Great Salt Lake. The owl was eventually chased to the north by a group of ravens and some gulls.
Reports of a snowy owl invasion from Washington state to Rhode Island hit the news soon after Nelson’s sighting. National Audubon Society officials attribute the unusually high number of snowy owl sightings in the lower 48 to a limited amount of food for the raptors in their typical winter range.
There has not been a report of a snowy owl since Nelson took his pictures, but there was at least one sighting at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in December 2010.
While wildlife enthusiasts have been excited about the opportunity of crossing a snowy owl off their life list, they have been disappointed in a lackluster showing by bald eagles at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area.
In years past, hundreds of bald eagles have shown up to feast on carp at Farmington. Visitors this year say they are lucky to see three.
Markus Mika, the science director at HawkWatch International in Salt Lake City, said that while the owls may be showing up looking for food, the eagles are no-shows because they found other sources.
"The bald eagles have historically come to Farmington Bay and other sites because they are reliable food sources. This year there may be other resources available," Mika said. "They don’t have to come to Farmington Bay because they are finding food in other places."
HawkWatch has been tracking raptor numbers in Utah and the West for 25 years. The nonprofit group relies heavily on volunteers for annual fall counting and banding projects.
Mika said winter survey counts conducted by volunteers have shown some depressed numbers of certain species, while others are up.
Last year’s long winter with deep snow may have congregated raptors in reliable food areas like Farmington Bay, but it may have also helped the critters they like to eat throughout the summer. And, with a mild winter this year, those food resources are easier to find.
Mika used the example of a winter raptor survey group out on a recent weekend that came across 30 bald eagles hanging out in a field near Logan.
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