Snowy owls are solitary birds and generally avoid areas with a lot of activity. Because of that, most birders see them first from a great distance, though high quality birding binoculars or a spotting scope can seem to bring the birds up close for better views. Knowing what to look for from far away, however, is often the first step toward identifying snowy owls.
- Open Habitat: Habitat can be the best clue to a snowy owl's identification. Their preferred habitats are open areas with light snow cover, including dunes and beaches, fields and woodland edges in agricultural areas. The birds will often perch directly on the ground or on a low perch such as a rock or fence post while they survey the territory, though they can also perch on roofs or higher poles, particularly when they venture into unfamiliar areas during irruptions.
- Round Shape: Even from a distance, the round shape of these birds stands out. When seen from far away, the snowy owl might look similar to a lost white volleyball, beach ball or discarded plastic bag – but look more closely and you may be surprised at the bird you find!
- Plumage Markings: While the nearly pure white male birds won't show markings that can be discerned from a distance, female snowy owls are heavily barred and that barring can still be seen from far away. Look for a white face, throat and breast contrasting with a heavily marked crown, back, wings and flanks to determine the gender of the bird. On the white face of both male and female birds, the darker spots of the eyes and bill can still stand out.
Snowy owls might seem easy to identify and they are familiar to many birders, but seeing one in the wild can be quite different than checking out a field guide. Understanding the different field marks of both male and female snowy owls can help you be prepared to identify these birds whenever you might be fortunate enough to spot one.
Photo – Snowy Owl © Tim