Snowy Owls prefer wide open spaces such as the ones they use for breeding grounds. Think in terms of the tundra. A treeless wide expanse of land. Grassland areas, airports, beach dunes, marsh areas, or agriculture areas with very few trees. How and when to find them? After you have identified a potential location sometimes scouting is the best way to find them. Snowy Owls will push to the lower 48 from November to March.
Once you get to your location look for perch points. Everything from telephone poles, fencing, hay bales, and even barns, or trees. You can view fields as well, but if the there is snow on the field it can make it difficult to locate them. Bring binoculars and prepare a plan for scouting. Try not to search on main roads such as highways. Use back roads that will allow you to safely pull over and glass. Bring a friend so one can focus on driving while allowing the other to search. If all else fails, and you are in an area where you know they have been observed you can always look for cars huddled together. However, please refer to my ethics section for approaching this sort of situation. If I notice too many cars next to a bird I tend to stay back and view from a distance. If you are looking to take photos, play the patience game. Observe your surroundings and set up in a way that may be an advantage to you in case this bird, unfortunately, gets flushed by the overwhelming pressure of too many people. Remember they are always hunting.
Below I will provide some screenshots of Google Maps on locations that provide such potential opportunities for viewing. Some of these locations have had confirmed sightings while others are similar to the locations where they have been observed. If you look at the satellite image you can see how the detail of the areas looks very similar. Once you identify this you can most likely apply it to anywhere for potential viewing areas.
If you have tried all of these tips and still no success try harnessing social networks. Such as birding and photography groups on Facebook. Search Twitter or Instagram for Snowy Owl and type in your state. Sometimes you will find a photographer or birder that will supply a location. If you see a photographer or birder that has seen them and they didn't post a location send them a direct message instead of posting in comments. Some might be guarded solely on the fact that they don't wish to see extra pressure put on these birds.
Project SNOWStorm is an ongoing project that hopes to study and research the annual movements of Snowy Owls. From wintering locations to breeding grounds, and areas that they use to travel to and from these locations. They are able to capture Snowy Owls and track them using lightweight solar-powered GPS/GSM transmitters. You can donate to help their cause which helps cover the cost of trackers and research. On their website, they also provide information about different birds they are tracking. From here you can see different areas that the Snowy Owls use for wintering. Which is another good tip for finding potential locations.
Viewing Snowy Owls is a rare opportunity to observe a bird that mostly lives in extremely remote parts of the wilderness. With this remoteness, they often lack a certain fear of humans. Allowing for you to get close. This can be beneficial for viewing, yet can pose dangerous conditions for these creatures. Being a predatory bird they are hunting nearly every waking hour, and it is important to be mindful of this.
I would like to share with you what I have observed in the past few weeks of viewing and photographing these creatures. The first time I observed a Snowy Owl I noticed the swarm of cars around a telephone pole. Like the image above you can see a swarm of cars and to the far right telephone pole, you can see a snowy owl. It was a sure give away that something rare had been sighted. Something I have noticed is that attention draws attention. Be mindful that if you find a bird and pull over to view them you are sending a giant flag in the air to everyone around you that there is a bird that has been located.
What I hate to see and what I have observed in these situations is people will drive right up to a telephone pole where a Snowy Owl is perched, race outside their car, scramble to get their camera out and poof the bird flies away startled. As it lands just a few telephone poles down the same yahoo jumps back in their car, drives quickly to the next telephone pole and repeat.
When viewing these birds be aware of your presentation and body language. If you are moving quickly and scrambling you come off as a predator and threatening. The key to viewing any wildlife is to be slow, be mindful of your body posture, do not fixate on the animal as a predator does while stalking its prey.
I had the opportunity to slowly approach a bird that had a few cars around it. Setting up I stayed in this location for over an hour. Watching a male catch 4 different rodents. It did eventually spook to a new pole down the road. I stayed put as I watched the caravan of cars drive down to the next post. The bird stayed at that telephone pole for a few minutes, and as more and more cars approached it flew back down the road to a different pole. This scenario replayed itself once again, yet this next time the bird flew back to where I originally had set up. Providing me with an excellent opportunity to capture in flight photos. Be patient, especially if you are going to try and take photos. Go in with a tactic, and remember to be as ethical as possible. The purpose is to observe natural behavior not forced behavior. Approach slowly and carefully, and if there are just too many people on one bird, observe at a distance and plan for an observing point that could work in your favor.
You will want to pay close attention to weather patterns as bright sunny days offer you the best light to make sure you can get your shutter speed up fast enough to stop the action. You will want low iso and a fast shutter speed for birds in flight. If it is snowing or it is cloudy it can provide some moody photos for when they are perched and still. Just remember it could be difficult to capture them in flight and stop the action with these lower lighting conditions.
I hope these tips are helpful, and that you get a chance to see one of these rare birds!