It was the news report that finally did it.
All week long, by word of mouth and the Internet, I’d been following the dispatches of a horde from the North. But when reports actually appeared on the TV news broadcasts, I knew I’d have to do something about it. I knew I’d have to face the invaders myself.
I gathered my lieutenants and headed into the bitter wind on a hastily arranged reconnaissance mission.
And who were these invaders, these large, nearly white creatures, with sharp talons and luminous yellow eyes? Abominable Snowmen? No, snowy owls.
These large owls range from the usually all white adult male to females and juveniles who are white with dark bars and spots. In North America, they make their living on the grasslands and open tundra of the Arctic, hunting lemmings and other small mammals, by day as well as night.
In many years, New Jersey might see two or three of these large birds at most. But this year, since Thanksgiving, there have been reports of over twenty snowy owls in the state, many clustered along the shore and the Delaware Bay. Other Mid-Atlantic states are reporting similar influxes of owls. Reports of snowy owls being seen in Pennsylvania are coming in from Berks, Chester and Lancaster counties as well as State College and Presque Isle State Park on Lake Erie. The birds are turning up in Long Island, New York, Ohio, and Boston, as far south as North Carolina, and there’s even been one vacationing in Bermuda, and another in Florida.
What in the name of Harry Potter is going on?
Snowy owls are among a number of species of birds subject to winter irruptions in which large numbers of birds appear in areas far outside their normal range. These events are unpredictable in both their frequency and intensity. It would appear that the winter of 2013-2014 is shaping up to be an irruption year of historic proportions.
CONSERVATION PIECE: Experts are divided on the cause of the irruption. The easy answer is the cyclical fluctuation of the lemming population, their main food source up north. The owls may produce large numbers of owlets when lemmings are abundant but skip breeding altogether when prey is scarce. The driving force behind the irruption may well be an overabundance of prey, leading to an owl population boom. Come the Arctic winter, there are more owls than available food. There may be other factors involved, however. At this point, ornithologists have more questions than answers.
FUN FACT: The snowy owls are looking for treeless areas that resemble the tundra they’re used to, so they’re most likely to be seen in places like beaches, marshes and fields, and, oddly, airports. In fact, in the highly developed Northeast, where native grasslands have all but disappeared, airports may be the best available open habitat for these birds. Sightings of owls – and conflicts with aircraft – have occurred at several airports along the East Coast
After researching the latest owl sightings online, Robb, Don and I decided our best chance of seeing a snowy owl would be at Forsythe NWR at the Jersey Shore. We thought the best we’d do would be a short look at one fairly far away, so when we got a good look at this bird above looking out over the marsh, we were pretty pleased.
Little did we know that there was another owl further down the road, calmly sitting on the rocks not 30 feet from a large group of birders and photographers. Look closely to see it perched at the water’s edge just right of center, above. We watched this white beauty for at least a half hour.
We spoke in hushed tones as the bird calmly preened, running feathers through its beak one by one. When it was time to move on, it was hard to tear ourselves away. Since that day, there have been many more reports of owl sightings, and it appears they are here for the winter. I am hopeful I will get another chance to see another of these majestic birds, but my first encounter with a snowy owl was a real hoot!
LOCAL FOCUS: If you are interested in seeing these magnificent birds for yourself, there are a number of opportunities. Check the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s online bird survey, eBird, which has been tracking the irruption thanks to reports of hundreds of amateur observers. Their article on the phenomenon includes links to real-time maps showing the most recent sightings. http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/gotsnowies2013/
Coming up: Snowed In