Westville | To see a rare sight this month, and maybe next, carefully scan the empty corn and soybean fields and the tops of utility poles.
If you’re lucky and observant, you’ll spot a snowy owl, perhaps in a field near the Westville Correctional Center, like a group of bird lovers did Saturday afternoon.
Brad Bumgardner, Indiana Dunes State Park interpretive naturalist, led a car caravan from the lakefront park to rural Westville, as he hosted the park’s Snowy Owl Car Pool Tour III.
Bumgardner said this winter offers a prime, yet rare, opportunity to view the beautiful white arctic bird, as the wintering population of the species is “erupting.”
“We have seen 60 of the birds in Indiana in the last six weeks, and two-thirds of those have been in Northwest Indiana,” said Bumgardner. “It is the biggest invasion ever in U.S. history, really.”
Bumgardner said a successful breeding season and plentiful food may have caused the proliferation of the birds.
Young birds find their first year difficult in the arctic, so they fly south for the winter before returning to the polar region in February, said Bumgardner.
“The previous record for sightings was six in one day in 1905. Last weekend, 11 were seen in one day,” said Bumgardner. “We’ve had three snowy owl tours so far and shown over 100 people their first snowy owl.”
Bumgardner said the fields surrounding the correctional center are favorite areas for the “jail birds,” as he jokingly called them, as they do most of their solitary hunting for field mice and other small animals at night.
“They like to hang out in large, open areas,” said Bumgardner. “The prison staff is well aware of the situation and has kind of made them their mascot.”
As the caravan of more than a dozen cars parked along the rural snow-covered road, Bumgardner sighted a female snowy owl sitting in a field about 50 yards away. He encouraged participants to take turns viewing her through the park’s high powered optic scope.
Bumgardner surmised the bird was born in the past year, weighed four pounds and was two feet tall.
Chris and Charlie Bucko counted her as their first ever snowy owl sighting.
“We tried to find a snowy owl in Ogden Dunes on New Year’s Day, with no luck,” said Chris Bucko. “We just wanted to see an owl.”
It was Shawn Kroeger’s second snowy owl sighting; he saw his first one atop a pole Christmas Eve as he and his family were driving along U.S.12 up to Michigan.
“This is very cool,” said Kroeger, who attended the program with his wife, Karin.
As the caravan slowly motored through the countryside, another owl was spotted atop a telephone pole on Highway 421 a few miles south of Westville.
“I’ve been trying to locate them ever since I heard about them,” said Trina Walworth, while looking at the bird through her binoculars. “I’m so excited … isn’t this amazing?”