Snowy owls, such as this one spotted in the Milwaukee area in 2012, have arrived again in the state.
Several strong cold fronts in November helped deliver a wintry landscape to Wisconsin earlier than many would have liked.

If you're looking for a positive, here's one: the new whiteness isn't just snow.

At least 31 snowy owls have been recorded in Wisconsin this month, according to Ryan Brady, research scientist with the Department of Natural Resources and bird monitoring coordinator for the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.

Like the early snow accumulation, the number of owls is unusually high for this time of year, according to Brady.

"It's probably a record," Brady said. "Thankfully, it's the kind of record that doesn't require shoveling and plowing."

The number of snowies in Wisconsin this month is even more extraordinary considering last year - which featured the largest number of the birds in the U.S. in decades - only one snowy owl had been seen in the Badger State by mid-November.

Snowy owls are large, charismatic birds that breed in the Arctic in summer and disperse in varying degrees to the south in winter.

In some years, particularly when production of young is high, thousands of owls will fly south and spend winter in the U.S. Such mass movements are termed "irruptions."

The winter of 2013-'14 was the largest snowy owl irruption of the last 50 years, according to bird researchers.

About 300 individual snowies were observed in Wisconsin last year, most on record, Brady said.

Scientists took advantage of last year's irruption to start Project SNOWstorm, a testing and tracking study of snowy owls. Twenty-two owls - including four in Wisconsin - were fitted with sophisticated transmitters to allow researchers to follow the birds' movements around the clock.

The transmitters use cellphone technology to transmit data. When the birds are out of cellphone range, the device collects data until it can be downloaded. Researchers are eagerly awaiting the return of birds that flew north last spring and the expected "data dump."

Snowy owls have been seen at locations in about the northern half of Wisconsin this month. The southernmost observations were in Columbia and Dodge counties as of last weekend. That is expected to change in the coming days and weeks.

Since the birds often have little fear of humans, people who see snowy owls should stay a respectful distance away and not affect the animal's behavior. The birds mostly prey on rodents and birds.

Given the early sightings of snowy owls, is this winter shaping up to be another record irruption?

"Snowy owls have proven me wrong many times, so I'm not making any predictions," Brady said. "What's cool about these birds is they draw so much interest from so many people, and that helps people realize the value of research and programs to benefit wildlife."

Observations of snowy owls in Wisconsin can be made on Wisconsin eBird at or by email to ryan.brady