It can be frustrating for adoring groupies because their arrival is infrequent and silent.
But word is getting out: the snowy owl, a rock star of the owl species, has been spotted in Chicago.
“I saw two this morning at Steelworkers Park,” Josh Engel, a Field Museum bird researcher, said Sunday.
The little-known Chicago Park District park at 87th Street and Lake Michigan is a perfect spot to see the birds that come to Chicago some years and others not at all, Engel said.
“I saw one on a breakwall out on the lake and another was in a sort of grassy area behind a fence. They like open areas,” he said.
Catching a glimpse may involve a bit of luck and stick-to-itiveness.
According to Engel, other spots that could be good for spotting a snowy owl are areas around Montrose and 31st Street harbors.
Sightings of snowy owls along the Chicago lakefront have been reported for weeks. The rash of sightings rivals the winter year of 2013, a bumper year.
The birds flew south from the cold and barren tundras of Northern Canada and Alaska. The journey is made every few years during successful breeding seasons by younger owls who don’t want to compete with their older brethren for meals, Engel said.
Rodents and ducks are the main dishes on their Chicago menu. They show up in November or December and leave by March, Engel said.
Seeing one can be tricky, though, because birders are notoriously cagey with sharing locations due to fear that people might get too close and disturb the birds.
“The fear is that they’re already quite tired and a little weak from the journey and hunting in an unfamiliar habitat, so for them to fly away from someone who gets too close, that can be precious energy to spend,” Engel said.
It’s a perpetual birding dilemma that’s regulalry discussed on online forums: What’s a safe distance from which to observe?
Engel’s advice: “If the birds start to notice you, you’re probably too close,” Engel said. “It’s very helpful to have a pair of binoculars.”
Why all the fuss?
“They’re just a really cool bird, really unusual. And people really like owls for some reason. It could be that they look a little more like us than other birds, like primates, with their big heads and front-facing eyes.”