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In This Place

It’s everyone’s favorite snowy-white visitor

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Mark Faherty
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Snowy Owl

Get ready, because it’s shaping up to be a Snowy winter! Don’t rush out and buy all the shovels please, I don’t mean the weather — like everyone else, I have no idea what that will be. But all indications are that it is turning out to be a decent winter for everyone’s favorite seasonal visitor, the Snowy Owl.

I first noted that it might be a good year for these big, white barrier beach predators back in late November, when the first sightings were trickling in. Some sites attract a Snowy Owl pretty much every winter, like Nauset Beach, Sandy Neck, or Jeremy Point in Wellfleet, and indeed there were reports from these big, remote barrier beaches. But by late November there were already some reports from second and third tier sites that rarely see owls, except in flight years. And it turns out we are four years removed from the last decent flight, which lines up with the four-year lemming cycle in Northern Quebec that tends to drive reproductive boom years for the Snowy Owls that winter around here. So if you get to enjoy some owls, make sure to thank a Northern Quebec lemming the next time you see one.

While I was at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture sanctuary in Barnstable recently, I did what we birders do in winter, I set up my spotting scope and scanned distant dunes for white, owlish blobs. This pastime explains the deep hatred among birders for old white buoys, bleach bottles, and plastic shopping bags. But fairly quickly I found an actual Snowy Owl in the terminal dunes of Sandy Neck, which were a full mile north of me across the water. This is why we have these scopes with 20 to up to 60x magnification. The owl was moving from dune top to beach and back before finally disappearing around the bay side of the dunes. The following week, I found it again, this time it was standing on a sand bar well east of the beach tip. While the nearby sand bars were crowded with gulls and American Black Ducks, the owl had this bar all to himself, which made sense given the likelihood he would eat anyone that joined him.

While Snowy Owls overwhelmingly eat mammals on both the Arctic breeding grounds and at inland wintering locations, ours are special in that they almost exclusively eat waterfowl, which they snatch right off the water, usually after dark. Norman Smith, Mass Audubon’s Snowy Owl researcher of 40+ years, watched one eat an entire flock of black ducks out of a cove at Logan Airport, one by one, over the course of a winter. In addition to Norway Rats, Meadow Voles, and ducks, over the years Norm has seen Snowy Owls eating Canada Geese, Great Blue Herons, various hawks and falcons, and even five species of owl, including other Snowies. It’s eat or be eaten, I suppose, if you want to survive the winter. The same also holds for political campaigns, I believe.

I am required by virtuous birder law to mention that you should not get so close to a Snowy Owl, at least not on purpose, that it flies. The owl may seem ok, but you will be roundly shamed in all social media circles. And with some good reason – many a dopey, overzealous person has gone tromping though the dunes trying to get a better look or photo of one of these owls. Like most owls, they are often pretty mellow about people, but if enough people do it they might get stressed, or be forced to leave a good hiding spot and get chased by crows or other predatory birds. Owls don’t want to be moving around during the day, they just want to be left alone – Snowies hunt at night just like other owls. Plus it’s bad form to trample the habitat and screw up others chances to see the bird.

If you plan to behave yourself and want to find one, check dune tops, sandbars, and marsh islands around barrier beach systems. I suspect there are more out there to be found away from the usual spots. When you find one, take a minute to meditate on the majesty, the raw wildness of this…oh, never mind. It was just a white plastic shopping bag.