If there was a perfect physical embodiment of our slow developing spring, it’s the seriously tardy Snowy Owl that’s been hanging around Falmouth this last week. A veritable Old Man Winter of a bird, this apparent male has been glowering down at people from rooftops near Little Pond.
The sighting is shocking for the very late date, since Snowies are typically gone by the end of March, but also because this was a winter with almost no Snowy Owl sightings. To thicken the plot even more, a sharp-eyed bird photographer figured out this bird had a history, and that he had seen him somewhere before.
Photographer Kevin Friel was looking at photos of this oddly late Snowy Owl when he noticed something familiar – some odd blue marks on the underside of a wing. He then realized this Falmouth owl was the same bird he had photographed this past winter at Sachuest Point in Rhode Island. Sachuest is a National Wildlife Refuge and well-known birding hotspot that played host to one of the only reliable Snowy Owls in the Northeast this winter. I have since looked at various people’s photos of the owl from both locations and there is no question they are one and the same.
I guess it’s hard stay anonymous when you’re a big white bird who likes to sit on rooftops in well-peopled places and pose for photographers.
It’s not clear why there were so few Snowy sightings this winter but I suspect it’s because lemming numbers crashed in Northern Quebec last summer, keeping owl breeding success low. It’s also not clear why Snowy Owls seem to be staying south longer each year, with more and later spring and even summer records in recent years. With most of the earth’s warming happening at the poles, climate change is always a primary suspect when Arctic birds do weird things these days, but I can’t find a way to pin this one on climate, since the birds would have no way of knowing what the Arctic weather is like while summering on Cape Cod. So I’ll leave this mystery in the “cold case files” for now, if you will…
At the other end of the Cape, an even more surprising discovery was made in the famous Beech Forest, perhaps the Cape’s best known spring birding hotspot. Phil Kyle noted a bright yellow and black warbler feeding in the budding oaks along the woodsy trail, but it didn’t look like the expected species, a Black-throated Green Warbler. Though similar, this bird had a bold black mask and a yellow breast, revealing it to be a Townsend’s Warbler. This boldly marked beauty breeds in the Pacific Northwest, so this guy got some bad directions.
There are less than 10 spring records of Townsend’s Warbler in Massachusetts but two of those were at the Beech Forest, highlighting the importance of that relatively mature patch of deciduous woodland to migrant songbirds. The combination of early flowering willows and their attendant insects, sunny shrub swamps and marshes, and budding beeches and oaks make this a perfect spot for a hungry warbler just in after a harrowing flight over a cold, unforgiving ocean.
Speaking of the Beech Forest, Cape Cod Bird Club runs free warbler walks there every Saturday and Sunday morning in May, assuming you can get yourself there by 7AM. I’m leading the one on Saturday the 25th, at which point the warbler migration should be peaking, so set your alarm for o-dark-thirty and I’ll see you then!