White Flight -Winter 2015
Long before J.K. Rowling made them famous, Snowy Owls captured people’s imaginations.
by: Ginger Andrews
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
The winter of 2013-14 will long be remembered as the one of many, many, many snowy owls. Sure, we might see one or two every few years. But that
winter those charming, golden-eyed, white-feathered celebrities of the bird world seemed to be everywhere from Oregon to the Carolinas. Astounded birders in Texas and Florida rubbed their optics in disbelief. One even made it to Bermuda.
Nantucketers saw them from Sconset to Madaket, Tom Nevers to Miacomet. Snowy owls staked out the dunes, they sat on roofs and chimneys, they perched next to white plastic irrigation pipes in the Milestone Cranberry Bog. Good camouflage, that, for a bright white bird in a mostly brown landscape. One lingered all winter on the fifth green at Sankaty Head Golf Course. Few rabbits played through. Nantucket’s Christmas Bird Count tallied 33, an unprecedented record.
Birders have long known that snowy owls normally inhabit the polar regions. They are North America’s largest owl, out-weighing even their cousin the great horned owl. Females and young males have brown or charcoal markings, adult males are pure white. The larger females retain their brownish markings through life. Some remain on their breeding grounds year-round, through the dark months of Arctic night and the blazing sun of 24-hour summer days. Their eyes are adapted to hunting by both night and day. Covered in layers of plumage from beak to talons, they are well-insulated against extreme cold. The plush, fur-like feathers on their legs are so thick they almost appear to be wearing mukluks, the popular Eskimo footgear. They are truly at home at the top of the world.
Ornithologists used to think that starvation drove periodic southern influxes. Snowys are what scientists call an “irruptive” species, with unpredictable movements motivated by lack of food. Big irruptions of snowy owls in the United States occurred in 1876-77, 1901-02 and 1926-27. In 1906, one taxidermist received 800 specimens collected over a wide geographic range. In 2011 a snowy owl even landed at Honolulu Airport. That bird probably took an assist from a ship somewhere along the way.
Prowling snowys look for land that’s home-like: treeless fields and dunes along the coast. But the biggest concentration in the Northeast has always been at Logan Airport. Low, flat and open, it’s the perfect tundra look-alike.
In 1981 researcher Norman Smith, director of the Blue Hills Trailside Museum,
began to trap and relocate snowy owls landing at Logan. In 1986-87 he banded 43. This was considered a big year until the magic winter of 2013-14, when his total came to over 140. He noted that the birds were in good condition, fat and healthy. Most were young males.
When the owls were tagged with satellite transmitters they revealed a surprising fact: some actually migrate north. Far up in the pack ice they find polynyas, leads of open water where massive flocks of sea ducks huddle tightly together. A steady diet of common eider might be a bit boring, but it’s reliable. For a young, unskilled hunter, easy pickings may be the difference between life and death. Some female owls made a trip from New England to Siberia and back, all in a single year.
Indigenous people of the Arctic were naturally familiar with the nomadic movements of snowy owls. Still, satellite transmitters can only tell us where the birds go, not why, or what they do when they get there. There are still a lot of mysteries to be solved.
During the short Arctic summers, snowy owls nest mostly near coastal areas all
around the north polar region. The female picks a ridge, scoops out a shallow bowl and lines it with mosses and lichens. Her mate brings provisions. There she lays four to 11 eggs, though as many as 15 have been recorded. If food is scarce she may not breed at all. If food is plentiful, more eggs are laid, more young hatch, and more survive to fledge.
Got lemmings? These prolific furry animals with a boom-and-bust population cycle have long been known as a major food of the snowy owl. A big year for lemmings means a big year for snowys. Not starvation but surplus may be what sends more young owls out searching for their place in the wide world. There, youngsters must learn their owlish skills: to fly, to hunt, to be aware of danger. Find a homelike place. Don’t hit the tower, the moving vehicle. Swoop and catch, hover and pounce, eat, and repeat.
So, will this be a “Snowy” winter? Who knows? But keep your eyes open. As Edith Andrews, mentor to many distinguished birders says, “You have to go out and look. If you don’t look, you don’t see.” ///
Ginger Andrews writes “Island Bird Sightings” for The Inquirer and Mirror.