By John McCoy
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia has been visited by a rock star.
Well, not really, but based upon the recent flurry of attention centered on one solitary snowy owl, one might think so.
The big white bird, native to the Earth’s arctic regions, showed up in northern Preston County around the end of November and quickly created quite a stir. For almost two weeks, birders flocked to a back-road intersection near Bruceton Mills simply hoping to catch a glimpse of the creature.
Rich Bailey, an ornithologist with the state Division of Natural Resources, said snowy owls only rarely venture into the Mountain State, and only under unusual circumstances.
“It’s called an ‘irruption,’ a movement of a species far outside its normal range,” Bailey explained. “Snowy owls are being seen all over the northern United States right now because they’re in the middle of one.”
Snowy owl irruptions occur when lemmings, the owls’ primary food source, are especially abundant. All that food causes female owls to lay huge clutches of eggs and raise large broods of young.
Lemming populations follow a boom-and-bust cycle, and when the population goes bust, owls are left with little or nothing to eat. So they venture south, often hundreds of miles, in search of prey.
The first birder to report the Preston County owl was LeJay Graffious of Bruceton Mills.
“A birder friend in Rowlesburg told me a friend of hers had photographed a snowy and posted it on Facebook,” Graffious recalled. “It had been seen one ridge over from some appropriate habitat near Aurora, so I went there to look for it.
“I didn’t find it, so I came up into the northern part of the county. I was scoping a northern harrier when a boy went by on a 4-wheeler. He told his parents, who had been students of mine, that ‘the bird man’ was in the yard. They came out and asked if I’d seen the white owl.”
Armed with his friends’ directions, Graffious went out early the next morning and found the owl.
“I wanted to post the sighting to WV-BIRD, the Audubon Society listserv for birders in the state, but I was afraid the landowners would be inundated with people coming to look at the bird,” he said. “So I asked the landowners if they minded me posting it. They said no, so I posted it.”
Birders from all over the region rushed to Bruceton Mills to see the owl…