Weekly Notes ~ Snowy Owls

Owl Snowy Snowy Owl released by The Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick

In middle of December, “you may catch a glimpse of the great Snow Owls.  You will be more likely to find them back of the shore, along the line of salt marshes and woody stubble, than further inland.”

Mable Osgood Wright authored Birdcraft, first published in 1895.  Her narrative continues:

“The Snowy Owl is one of the dramatic figures of the winter landscape, and appears like a personification of Boreas himself, coming to superintend the arranging of his snow-drapery.”

This last sentence seems most appropriate to describe the abundance of Snowy Owl sightings across our snow-covered State of Maine this year.  I didn’t expect to find much about this Arctic Owl in Wright’s book and was pleasantly surprised at how much attention she gave to it.  Most early field guides were written with lyrical descriptions that transport the reader to another time when nature observation was very much in vogue with the intellectual and well-healed ladies of the day.

These narratives provided more than entertainment in their details of nature observation; they placed the reader into a scene where they might experience the bird first-hand.  Over a century has passed and still Mrs. Wright’s observations and notes are relevant.

She mentions, “in winter migrating south to the Middle States, straggling to South Carolina and the Bermudas.”

The new eBird website states that the Snowy Owl has indeed been observed in these most unusual places this year.  It further explains that it has been a subject of research for several centuries and indicates some of the reasons the southern invasion (also called irruptions) may occur.  Long thought that invasions were caused by shortage of prey or serve weather, researchers now believe that other factors such as abundant summer food sources or arctic climate changes may be a significant factor.

Snowy Owls lay 5 – 10 eggs, the last one being laid about the same time as the chick hatched from the first egg is fledged and ready to fly.  This delayed interval allows the birds to maximize the opportunity for survival for all of the chicks.  Considering that Snowy Owls primary prey on lemmings, which have cyclical population explosions, if there was an abundance of these and other rodents, there most likely was a high success rate in fledged young.  These first year birds must then migrate large distances to accommodate the increased need to find food sources.

Snowy Owls seen in corn and other agricultural fields or salt marshes are hunting for mice or small mammals, however, some Snowy Owls specialize in preying upon Sea Ducks along the coastline.  Although researchers are still unsure, there is speculation that changes in the melt of arctic sea ice may be a factor to consider in understanding the unusual number of birds this year.

No matter what the cause, it certainly is thrilling to see such an unusual bird first hand.  There have been reports of observations from Presque Isle to Kittery Point.  The photo above is of a Snowy Owl being released at Mount Agamenticus by The Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick.  Fortunately, this bird needed only minor care and support and was quickly released back into the wild.  And in its time of rest gave nature observers a chance to share knowledge about these beautiful creatures.  I have seen several photos, some most beautiful, but this shot gives us a glimpse of key markings and features that identify this bird.  The photo is credited to Chuck Homler from The Mount Agamenticus Conservation Region.

The Snowy Owl is a large bird, 20 – 27 inches in height.  Although it is primarily white, it can have varying dark coloration on the body and possibly bands across the tail.  Distinguishing features are the yellow eyes and the black bill.  The feet are also black but very heavily covered in feathers to the extent they are not usually seen.

Do you notice something funny about the bill in the picture above?  Because the bill is so heavily covered in feathers, it looks like the bird has a big wide smile on its face!

The preferred habitat where it can be found is Prairies, fields, marshes, beaches and dunes.

Dan Gardoqui from White Pine Programs offered this link to Cornell University speciman photo and marking identification guide.  This is a particularly helpful resource if you would like to have some fun and determine the sex of Snowy Owls that you observe.

Norman Smith is the director of Mass. Audubon Blue Hills Trailside Museum.  This link provides some interesting information from his research of the Snowy Owl at Logan Airport over the past 30 years.