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Will Snowy Owls Return in Big Numbers This Winter? Birdwatchers Wait to See

Vern Laux

The question that keeps coming my way and has since last spring is will the Snowy Owls that spent the winter in larger numbers than ever before in our area last winter return to spend another winter. Simple, straight forward question but not an easy one to answer. This historic incursion points out just how little we know about not only Snowy Owls but pretty much everything else as well.  

Snowy Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Herring Gulls, virtually all migrant land birds and most birds share many things in common. But as regards answering the question, in virtually all young birds, birds attempting to survive their first winter, there is a lot of mortality. In fact studies have shown the fully 50 per cent or more of first year birds will not survive to reach their first birthday. It’s rough out there in the natural world.

However, last winter’s irruption of Snowy Owls sparked so much interest from not only birders but pretty much everyone that Project Snowstorm was formed. Monies were raised and a new type of specialized transmitter were purchased. Snowy Owls that were trapped and moved away from airports, notably Logan where over 100 Snowy Owls were removed from runways and potential fatal encounters with jet aircraft, and some 24 Snowy Owls were fitted with these new tracking devices that download information to cell phone towers not through satellites.

The information, the data that was gathered was incredible. The data transmitted showed whether it was day or night, if the bird was flying, the altitude of the bird and all sorts of things that were just not possible from satellites. It turns out that virtually all of the owls were young birds, trying to survive their first winter. Many of the owls at coastal locations displayed a hunting technique that was effective and previously unknown.

Shortly after dark the birds would fly high into the night sky and fly offshore or over embayments. They then would drop down to hug the water’s surface and hunt for waterfowl of various types. The grebes, sea ducks, alcids and other birds wintering on these waters had never had encountered large hunting raptors at night and were literally “sitting ducks” for the powerful and stealthy owls. It turns out that the owls had no trouble capturing food and they were having a really good winter with kittle to no starvation.

A late March Nor’easter which created large waves killed a number of the owls as they flew so low they got hit by waves and drowned. Inexperience the factor that caused the young birds demise. Fortuitously, most of the Snowy Owls that came south managed to survive the winter and then gradually drifted away to the north from March thru May. For the first time ever at least 2 Snowy Owls spent the summer in Massachusetts and were seen off and on visiting islands in Boston Harbor.

As this goes on air there are Snowy Owls arriving in small numbers in several places in Massachusetts including Newburyport and Plum Island, Duxbury Beach and several reported from the Connecticut River Valley. More are certainly not far behind but as yet there are no reports for the Cape and Islands. Whether the birds will return to where they successfully overwintered last year remains to be seen. Last year most birds arrived in the 2 weeks following Thanksgiving. Time will tell if they will return to where the living was relatively easy for them in their first winter.