(Photo courtesy of Wikicommons / User: Bert de tilly)
Imagine walking along a beach in northern Massachusetts on a cold January day. Just as you round a corner, you come face-to-face with a two-foot-tall white owl. He briefly regards you with an inquisitive stare and then takes off into the sky, where his five-foot wingspan casts shadows on the sand as you stand there in disbelief. If this sounds like a dream, or a scene from Harry Potter, that’s exactly how it felt to a friend of mine, who went for a brisk beach walk last winter and stumbled upon this iconic arctic bird.
At first, I asked my friend if she had possibly misidentified the bird. She quickly whipped out her iPhone, and sure enough, standing like a regal sentry on the dunes at Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts, was a “Snowie,” as they are known by bird enthusiasts. The very next day I was at the beach, hoping for my own encounter.
It turns out my friend was not alone in her sighting of a Snowy Owl that winter. During the past two years, bird watchers from across the U.S. have reported increased numbers of sightings. It is not uncommon for a small number of Snowies to migrate “south” to the northernmost states of the U.S. However, it is unusual for so many of these Arctic emissaries to be showing up in so many places, including locations as far south as Kansas.
Snowy Owls eat a variety of animals, such as voles, rabbits, lemmings, ptarmigan, ducks and geese. But lemmings make up as much as 90 percent of their diet during their breeding period (May to September). Denver Holt, head the Owl Research Institute in Montana, has studied Snowy Owls in the Arctic for over two decades. When I asked him why such a large number of the great white birds were migrating farther south than usual, Holt explained that in 2011 there was an increase in the lemming population. With all the extra owl food that year, the Snowies had a robust breeding season, followed by a population boom.
Like any species, Snowy Owl populations fluctuate, but what happened after that “summer of plenty” was extraordinary. Thousands of Snowy Owls started showing up across the States. Holt described the large-scale southern migration that year as “one of the most significant wildlife events in decades.” From what researchers could tell, most of the migrating Snowies were young birds—under a year—and some were described as underweight.
No one knows for certain what made so many Snowy Owls fly farther south that year, but Holt believes it relates to food. “The population surge probably created competition and overcrowding, which caused younger birds to fly into the lower 48, looking for food,” Holt explained.
Despite the surge in population that year, Snowy Owl populations are believed to be in overall decline. Some scientists, including Holt, speculate that the changing climate could be a factor because of its impact on vegetation and snow cover, which lemmings need for food and shelter. And when the lemming population declines, Snowies head south, looking for food.
During their winter migration, Snowies seek out flat, open, tundra-like environments, such as coastal dunes, fields, prairies, and even airports. Depending upon where you live (or vacation) this winter, you might have an opportunity to watch one of these majestic white raptors of the north. To find out if there is a Snowy Owl watching opportunity near you, check out the resources listed here. And if you're on Boston's North Shore, stop in and visit True North!
Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the eBird website provides data on bird abundance and distribution. Use their map to find out where to view Snowies. Click on the “Explore Data” tab, then “Bar Charts,” and then select an area in order to learn when and where you are most likely to see a Snowie. ebird.org
The Owl Research Institute
Headed by Denver Holt, a Snowy Owl expert, the Owl Research Institute has been dedicated to studying the biology, ecology and natural history of a wide variety of owl species for over 25 years. owlinstitute.org