LINCOLN COUNTY • Mike Arduser has seen snowy owls in northern Michigan, but he never expected to spot the Arctic birds this far south.
He and his wife, Jane, got that chance recently after several people reported seeing two of the white, 2-foot-tall birds on private property next to the B.K. Leach Memorial Conservation Area near Elsberry.
Arduser, 58, of Webster Groves, a biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said his co-workers and online birding message boards had been buzzing about the news.
"They're a gorgeous bird, and it's a real treat for folks down here," he said.
Some of the owls migrate regularly, and some remain year-round in their northern breeding grounds, but wildlife experts have noticed a larger than usual migration this winter that extends to places thousands of miles away. In Missouri, more than 50 have been spotted. The previous high for the state was 13.
One theory for the increase is a combination of a good breeding season with a decline in the lemming population, which is the owl's main food, Arduser said. The birds also eat mice, voles, rabbits and fish.
"But why come all the way to Missouri when you could have stopped in Iowa or southern Michigan? — it is kind of curious," he said.
The birds — a male and a female — were seen in the area Jan. 11 to Jan. 18, but since then, no sightings have been reported. It's unclear whether the owls have moved on.
Their appearance gave many longtime local conservationists their first peek at the species.
Gary Calvert, 54, who has been a biologist with the state's Conservation Department since 1978, said he was determined to see them.
"That was when we were having snow here, and boy, I tell you, trying to find a white bird in a snowstorm is not an easy task," he said.
He eventually spotted the male, which is whiter than the female, on Jan. 14. But the female proved to be elusive.
"It was in the middle of a bunch of geese, so it was very hard to pick out," he said.
Kevin Eulinger, 34, a conservation agent in Lincoln County, had never seen one in more than 20 years of bird-watching. He spotted the male on Jan. 17, a few hundred feet off Norton Woods Road.
"I was just driving by real slow, and sure enough there's a bright white owl sitting in the middle of this field," he said. "It was a long ways away, and I could still see it plain as day. They're just that remarkably white."
Adding to the bird's attraction, he said, is its connection to Harry Potter — the owls are the same species as his pet, Hedwig.
Denver Holt, director of the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Mont., said snowy owls usually perch on the ground or on short posts. The birds hunt both day and night. They are primarily a tundra species, and they like open habitats, often ones that are wind-swept and cold.
Arduser said that when he and his wife spotted the male owl, it was sitting in a patch of snow.
"I thought this is going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but there it was," he said.
Arduser used a spotting scope, and he said the owl just sat there looking around.
"I mean, it had its eye on us and clearly knew we were there," he said. "But we were far enough away and didn't approach it, so we didn't spook it."
Jason Harrison, 37, of Troy, Mo., is a professional wildlife photographer who last year traveled to northern Minnesota to photograph a snowy owl but never got the shot.
"I've traveled all over in pursuit of them, but I didn't have to go far for this one," he said.
He said the birds make a striking photograph because of their yellow eyes and dark irises against white plumage, which even covers their feet.
Wildlife experts hope this won't be the last they see of these birds.
"Who knows?" Arduser said. "Winter's not over yet. Stay tuned."