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Snowy owl influx is a boon for birders, a threat to airplane safety

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Can an airport be mistaken for the arctic tundra? Not by pilots, but certainly to snowy owls invading the Northeast and Midwest in record numbers this year. What has turned into a headache for airports may be a boon to birdwatchers traveling for the holidays who want to add this usually reclusive creature to their life lists.

"We’re experiencing what could be the largest-ever influx of Arctic snowy owls into the Northeast and the Great Lakes states," a statement from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology released Tuesday says. "And more may be on the way." Sightings have included urban areas such as New York City's Jones Beach and Chicago's Lincoln Park.

No one's exactly sure why there's an owl boom this year. Experts say summer breeding conditions in the eastern Arctic must have been excellent to have so many birds appearing so far south. The owls love wide open marsh and dune areas, some of which only exist at airports. "Airports provide the most similar habitat that these owls can find to where they want to be," eBird.com reports.

And that's the problem. JFK and LaGuardia airports reported five planes struck by the owls in the past two weeks, prompting a few owls at JFK to be shot on orders from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. The public outcry led by New York chapters of the Audubon Society and others caused the airport authority to have a change of heart.

"The Port Authority’s goal is to strike a balance in humanely controlling bird populations at and around the agency’s airports to safeguard passengers on thousands of aircraft each day," the agency said in a statement Monday. Now New York City's airports will trap and relocate the owls, something Boston's Logan Airport does too.

But back to the birdwatching: Where should you go looking if you want to see a snowy owl of your own? For starters, eBird.com offers a Snowy Owl Alert you can receive via email any time one is cited in the Lower 48 states and also hosts a list of where and when sightings have been confirmed. The best time of the day to look for the owls would be around dusk and in evenings when they go hunting for food.

And eBird adds these tips for the owl obsessed: "Beachfront areas with sand dunes are among the best areas to find them. Extensive marshes, open fields (especially barren hilltop fields), and of course, airports, are other favored areas."

Forget trying to access the wild sides of airports because owl-friendly areas generally are off-limits to the public. Better to check the eBird map and plan an itinerary.

Mary.Forgione@latimes.com
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