After rare snowy owl sighting in Westminster, experts say more could follow

DENVER – Snowy owls are not usually seen in Colorado, but that changed earlier this week when a Denver7 viewer spotted one in Westminster.

Dave Masters, a photographer who occasionally sends photos of our state landscape, emailed us saying he was fortunate for finding a rare gem: a sighting of a snowy owl somewhere in Westminster on Wednesday morning.

Fortunate doesn't even began to cover it.

“It’s a rare event that you see them, especially in this part of the U.S.,” said Garth Spellman, Curator of Ornithology at the Denver Museum of Nature of Science.

Spellman said snowy owls are found in the Arctic Tundra. When they move south, they’ll stay in familiar habitat.

“It’s not common in Colorado, you will only see them during the winter,” Spellman said, adding you’re likely to see them perched on posts or road signs if you are lucky enough to spot them this far south.

A distribution map from Birds of North America Online shows snowy owls are typically found in Canada and some parts of the Great Lakes area during the winter months. Their breeding range reaches as high as Greenland. Sometimes though, conditions are just right for snowy owls to make it all the way to Colorado.

Map courtesy of Birds of North America Online

Young snowy owls will show up in places like Colorado during what’s called irruptions, a scientific term for the sudden increase in an animal population.

And conditions have to be just right for you to spot one.

A high density of birds, a lack of food available to them in the Arctic Tundra and severe weather events could cause these irruptions of snowy owls in Colorado, according to Mary Ann Bonnell, a lifelong birder and the Visitor Services Manager for Jefferson County Open Space.

“Having a snowy owl in the Denver metro area is a big deal because you typically have to travel to see it,” said Bonnell, adding that the snowy owl in Westminster was probably looking for food.

Lemmings, the go-to nutrition source for this particular bird, are not found in Colorado; but snowy owls will break their diet and choose whatever they can find (and digest) in order to survive. This includes mice, rabbits, rats and even carcass left behind, according to Bonnell.

While snowy owls are not an endangered species, Spellman said there is concern for them in the long run, given the effects of climate change in the near future for parts of the arctic.

What to do if you spot a snowy owl in Colorado

Spotting this majestic bird is treat, Bonnell said, so knowing what to do to prolong the sighting is essential if you want to keep a special memory for years to come.

Bonnell said you should always be respectful of their space. Don’t move too close, or else you’ll scare them away.

To have the best viewing opportunity in case you spot one, Bonnell suggests you use binoculars to view them from afar.

Once you’re done, head over to EBird.com and log the sighting on the website, so others know where to look for the bird next.

When have sightings of the snowy owl occurred in Colorado? 

While spotting snowy owls in Colorado is rare, it happens more frequently than you may think. 

Data from eBird suggests that snowy owls have been flying south to Colorado for the past several years almost consecutively. Bonnell said sightings have taken place in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017. 

Doing a little deeper digging through historical records, Bonnellfound the earliest sighting reference was in 1886. Additional sightings were recorded in 1888, 1890, 1896, 1909, 1910, 1917, 1957, and 1961.

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