Record number of snowy owls seen across the region
By Charles McMahon
Hampton Union, January 3, 2014
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
A snowy owl is perched on a chimney on a home in Rye
on Route 1A across from the Atlantic Ocean on Monday
morning. Many sightings of snowy owls were reported
over the weekend. [Deb Cram photo]
RYE — A surge in snowy owl sightings along the Seacoast is creating a stir for local bird lovers and wildlife enthusiasts.
The arctic owl, known for its white plumage and piercing yellow eyes, has made local appearances in such abundance that the region's coastal roads are aflutter with fans of the feathered creature.
On Monday, a snowy owl made itself the center of attention on Ocean Boulevard in Rye after it found a comfortable resting place atop a homeowner's chimney. The sight caused passersby to stop alongside the road to take photos and marvel at it.
Kristen Lamb, director of the Center for Wildlife in York, Maine, said many snowy owls appear to have taken up residence in various locations along the Maine and New Hampshire coastline over the past several weeks.
"They're all over," she said.
The unusually high number of New England sightings, according to Lamb, is the result of an irruption, a term scientists use to describe the phenomenon when large numbers of birds move into a region outside of their customary range.
The invasion of snowy owls is known to happen every three to four years and is heavily related to the amount of food the birds have in their native habitat in the Arctic, Lamb said.
The current influx of snowy owls is special, according to Lamb, who said the last time the region saw anything close to this level of snowy owls was in 1943.
"This is slated to be a record-setting irruption year," she said. "We haven't seen this kind of amazing irruption for a long time."
Within the past few weeks, the wildlife center has brought in three weak snowy owls found along the coastline, Lamb said. "They were pretty exhausted and dehydrated from their journey from the Arctic," she said.
One of the owls was given fluids and supportive care, and was rehabilitated in the center's 100-foot flight enclosure, Lamb said. Within six days, the owl was released back into the wild at Mount Agamenticus in York.
Another owl found at a beach in Rye had been hit by a wave and was exhausted when it was recovered, she said. That owl died while en route to the wildlife center, according to Lamb. The third owl was also unable to survive due to the toll of its travels, she said.
The lemming population in the Arctic plays a key role in the distribution of snowy owls, according to experts. Research conducted by Norman Smith, director of Massachusetts Audubon's Blue Hills Trailside Museum, indicates an abundance of lemmings this year in the Arctic created a snowy owl breeding boom.
"The parents are able to successfully raise and feed a lot more juveniles when there are more lemmings," Lamb said. "These juveniles then grow up, so in the winter time they are competing for food and end up getting kicked out and have to disperse farther away."
Smith, who has been catching and releasing snowy owls at Logan International Airport in Boston for the past 32 years, said aside from speculation, there is little known about the birds and why they come so far south. "There's a lot of mystery with these birds," he said.
Having banded 51 snowy owls already this winter season, Smith also said it could be a record-setting irruption. Last year, he banded 53 of the birds throughout the entire season.
"I'm already at 51 and we're only two months into the season," he said.
The snowy owls will likely stick around until February before returning home, Lamb said.
While the birds remain in the Seacoast for at least the next two months, both Lamb and Smith are urging bird watchers to be respectful.
"They have traveled such a great distance and can be exhausted," Lamb said. "When they become crowded or people see them and start going up to them, the owl is forced to fly off and they end up using their precious reserves that they should be conserving."
The avian visitors from the Arctic should be appreciated, not harassed, Smith said.
"These birds need their space," he said.
Lamb said she and her staff are particularly excited when unusual wildlife sightings occur because they allow people to become more engaged with nature.
"It's gotten everybody really excited," she said. "The snowy owls are very majestic birds and people are drawn to them. This is a great gateway for people to become excited about wildlife in the region."
ABOUT SNOWY OWLS
Where they live: During breeding season, which begins in May, snowy owls can be found on open tundra all the way around the Arctic circle. In North America, some of the owls may stay on the breeding grounds through the rest of the year, weathering temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees. Others migrate as far south as the northern half of the lower 48 states. In the Northeast, snowy owls are regular visitors to New York and New England.
Physical features: Snowy owls are the largest North American owls, and they're among the largest owls in the world. They are 20 to 28 inches in length, with a wing span of 54 to 66 inches, and weigh 3.25 to 6.5 pounds. Males are typically smaller than females. Despite their name, most snowy owls are not pure snowy white. They range from all white to black and white, with a pattern of dark, prominent bars — except on the face, which is always white. Females typically have more dark markings than males. The eyes of snowy owls, like those of all owls, are enormous in proportion to their heads. Owls cannot move their eyes, so they must turn their entire heads, which they swivel 270 degrees with the help of 14 neck vertebrae. Snowy owls have deep yellow eyes. A protruding upper eyelid acts as a shade from sunlight. To keep the birds warm, the face, beak, legs and feet of snowy owls are covered with fine, fur-like feathers. This heavy covering of feathers has made it difficult to read the owls' leg bands without recapturing them.
Finding food: Snowy owls eat voles, lemmings and other small rodents, as well as birds. On their summer breeding grounds, it's daylight 24 hours a day, so snowy owls hunt in the light. In the winter they prefer to find food under cover of darkness. They hunt by hovering in the air looking for prey, or by watching for prey from a perch.
— Source: Massachusetts Audubon's Blue Hills Trailside Museum