Finding a Snowy Owl in Ohio can take one of 3 courses: you can rush to a spot where someone else has seen one, you can work to discover your own, or you can get frustrated and just make the trip up to Ontario. I recently ran the first course, chasing after an alleged Snowy Owl down in the area around the trash dump , along Rt 665 south of Grove City, but with no success. If we're going to find one of these owls, we're going to need to focus our searching. My kids learned the art of patient searching from the “Where's Waldo?” series of books and videos. Now, in this invasion year for Snowy Owls, we might also ask, “Where's Snowy?”
Snowy Owls love open spaces. I mean really, really open, 'wind comes sweepin' down the plain' spaces. This is a bird of the tundra, and it's most comfortable in very open, exposed locations. While most other birds seem to shun the bracing cold of severely-open spaces, Snowy owls flock to such places. Fields, prairies, dunes, and airports all seem to be good places to find these big owls. Most of the Snowies that are found in Ohio seem to be spotted in one of these habitats. Some of these habitats, however, might be less than healthy for the Owls. Open farm fields here in Ohio often have little in the way of rodents (due to clean farming practices) as well as a sizeable pesticide load. A Snowy that had taken up residence in farm fields in Hardin County was eventually found dead of starvation.
Although most Snowies land in areas north of us, there is the possibility that this year will see one or more of these big owls make it down to central Ohio. Where would be the likely places to look? Some areas in and around Columbus have habitat more attractive to Snowy Owls than most fields. I would group these areas into 2 categories: (1) immense fields and (2) grassland islands
'Immense Fields' are just that: huge expanses of tilled ground that replicate the flat prairies of the Great Plains. Surprisingly, there are not that many truly huge fields near to Columbus. Probably the best areas are west of town, around the old Darby Plains. Madison County seems like one vast plain, but close areas include the huge fields around the aptly-named Big Plain (west of Darbydale) and Lily Chapel (west of Georgesville), and the huge fields around the Smith Cemetery (west of Plain City). In south Franklin County, huge expanses are along Beatty Rd (south of Grove City) and Youngs Road (southwest of the trash dump), while neighboring areas of Pickaway County around the tiny crossroads of Matville are especially vast and open.
North of town, the options are also somewhat circumscribed. East of Hoover reservoir are many fields, but only two roads seem to access truly vast fields: Miller-Paul Rd (just east of the reservoir) and Clover Valley Rd (closer to Johnstown). Both run north-south for several miles through open flat fields that are a favored location for Horned Larks and longspurs, and should be reasonable chances for Snowies. North of town, the most expansive fields tend to follow the railroad tracks north of Lewis Center, so good areas are along Piatt Road/Gregory Rd and further north along St 42 northeast of Delaware. Northwest of Hilliard & Dublin, the Heritage bike trail and St. 161 between Dublin and Plain City offer huge expanses of fields.
'Grassland Islands' are big patches of shortgrass, which around here means planted prairies, golf courses, or airports. Few of our planted prairies seem to have the size necessary to attract Snowies, but the grasslands at both Battelle-Darby and Glacier Ridge have attracted Short-eared Owls and could possibly catch a Snowy's fancy. Most of our golf courses have tree plantings, so they are not that open, but one exception is the Phoenix Golf Course down near the I-71/I-270 interchange near Grove City. It's formed atop an old dump and has virtually no trees, but is in the middle of a very disturbed area, squeezed between 2 freeways and a quarry.
Our Airports are another matter, and could be potentially the best local areas to search for Snowies. Large stretches of grass are major features of both Port of Columbus and Rickenbacker, and even smaller fields like Don Scott, Bolton Field, Union County Airfield, and Pickaway County Airport offer good territory for Snowy Owls and other open country birds. Port of Columbus and Don Scott field might have an additional advantage in that they're truly grassland islands, surrounded by development. Any Snowy Owls that blunder into these areas have little choice but to head for the runways of these airfields.
One thing we do know, however, is that Snowy Owls don't really read the field guides (or my blog posts, for that matter). They can be downright unpredictable in where they show up. Most of these are young, inexperienced birds, so their idea of good Snowy Owl habitat may be a little hazy. There are records from all sorts of areas, even of a bird in a parking lot along Morse Road during the last big invasion of the '80s. So keep your eyes open anytime you're in an open area this winter. You just might be the one to find a local Snowy Owl.