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January 3, 2013

Snowy owls putting on a show in Montana

The numbers are down from last year but this young female snowy owl made the journey from the Arctic, south to Montana’s Mission Valley this winter, probably in search of a plentiful food supply.

POLSON - For birds that fly south for the winter, Montana is more likely to be a departure point than a destination.

But snowy owls, which fled the Arctic and brightened the Polson skyline last winter, have come south again.

A few – three for sure, perhaps as many as eight – have apparently decided the Mission Valley is once more the perfect spot to spend the cold months.

The magnificent birds are big (2 feet tall with wingspans up to 5 feet), white, with big yellow eyes and talons that seem large enough to palm a basketball.

A year ago snowy owls migrated south in perhaps their most spectacular irruption ever, spreading out from the Pacific to the Atlantic and eventually being spied in more than 30 states.

One even made it to Hawaii – “It had to have hitched a ride on a ship,” says local owl expert Denver Holt – where the big owl made the unfortunate decision to take up residence at Honolulu International Airport.

After two hours of trying to run it off, officials shot it.

Snowy owls have gotten a warmer welcome in the cooler climes of Lake County, although some of the human residents of the neighborhood where they congregated last winter no doubt eventually tired of the birdwatchers who flooded in, often by the busload, to look for them, photograph them and – unfortunately – the ones who tried to flush the owls into the sky.

“I think a lot of people bought shades,” Holt says. “They’d climb out of the shower and see people running through their backyards.”

Last year, many of the at least 14, and perhaps as many as 20, snowy owls that showed up here took a hankering to hanging out on rooftops and deck railings.

This winter, the new batch appears most comfortable on fence posts, irrigation pipe and rock outcroppings in nearby fields.

There are fewer of them, and they are tougher to find.

But they’re back – there were absolutely no guarantees they would be – and they’re beautiful.

Written by VINCE DEVLIN Photographed by MICHAEL GALLACHER of the Missoulian.

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