Snowy Owl at Whaleback Photo © Judy Fitch
The Snowy Owl
[Links to websites are in BLUE; Link to Species Account (PILP's Bird Varieties Page) on Snowy Owl in ORANGE]
Snowy Owls, with their large heads, bright yellow eyes, and almost white plumages are, for no better term – awesome. Their nomadic lifestyles are remarkable and mysterious as they navigate above and below the Arctic Circle. What we do know about them is that they follow abundant food sources. After the summer nesting season in the tundra is complete they are on the move. Some owls will go further north into the endless ice and darkness to hunt, others will move about within the Arctic Circle, while others may go south – a fairly new phenomenon. Migration distances of 2000 miles are recorded (1).
Why are Snowy Owls migrating further south than years past?
ProjectSNOWstorm is a new non-governmental organization that tracks Snowy Owl movements. The project began after “a tsunami of white owls came flooding out of the Arctic” – four years ago (winter of 2013-2014). Through GPS tracking devices this volunteer-fueled group is trying to tease out the reasons for the Snowy Owl’s mysterious migration patterns. Results are staggering – they are learning about many curious behaviors and movements of these white owls of the North. (1)
Scott Weidensaul, founding member of ProjectSNOWstorm, predicted that an “irruption of these Arctic raptors” would occur this winter. A southerly irruption of Snowy Owls is evident along the coast this winter. (2)
A Snowy Owl is sighted on Peaks Island. Judy encountered this owl resting on rocks near Whaleback. Thank you Judy for sharing your Christmas present on Peaks Island Neighbor. Several more folks are seeing this winter visitor – mostly around the Battery Steele marshes – sometimes perched on the ragged birch trees at the path opening on the Backshore. Perching on a tree? These Arctic owls are accustomed to flat and treeless tundras. Adapting to resting on tree branches can only be a challenge for them – although these owls appear very adaptable to the many new things they encounter south of the Arctic tundra.
Claudine witnessed a hunt – so rapid that she could not get her camera positioned for a photo. These raptors with five-foot wingspans (as wide as Claudine is tall) can pluck an agile Kestrel or even a Snow Bunting from the air (1).
Is this Snowy Owl new to the island or is it a habitual visitor?
Lisa notes that this owl alights on the same Backshore house and marsh locations as a Snowy Owl from previous years. Young owls’ white plumages are decorated with more black spots and bars than the nearly all white adult. The intensity of black spots and bars varies between male and female, although the male is usually whiter overall. Based on Judy’s photograph this Peaks Island owl appears mostly whiter (except the back of wings) than a juvenile’s more barred and spotted plumage. The plumage of Steve's Snowy Owl from December 14, 2014 appears similar. Welcome back, Snowy Owl.
Snowy Owl from December 14, 2104 (last "irruption")
Snow Owl at Battery Steele Photo © Peter Eckel
Why are there four-year intervals between Snowy Owl irruptions? Lemmings? What are lemmings?
Lemmings are the Snowy Owls favorite summer food. So favorite is the lemming - that a male will dangle it as a lure during his courtship display. Lemmings are arctic rodents, related to voles. They differ from voles, though; their fur is conspicuously colored and they do not even try to conceal themselves. They are sometimes aggressive toward their predators, but the lemming’s poor disposition is no match to the Snowy Owl’s prowls. They do not hibernate. The lemmings scavenge for food under the snow – also providing winter food for this owl. With its finely tuned auditory system, this white owl can hear the rodent scuffling under the snow. (3) We can only use our imaginations as to how the Snowy Owl plows through the snow to retrieve its meal.
Although generally solitary, the lemmings migrate in large groups when their regional population densities explode, frequently occurring in four-year cycles (3). Although it is not well understood, the Snowy Owl takes advantage of these cyclic abundances of lemmings. They somehow ‘know’ where these prolific lemmings are located, and they travel there in crowds. The male provides his mate with unlimited lemmings – she gets fat and very fertile. The owl’s normal clutch of three or four surges to eight or nine eggs. After hatching the owlets find themselves completely surrounded by lemmings. (2) So where do these well fed and fat juvenile owls go to find their winter subsistence? Many migrate south. Most, but not all, birds observed during previous ‘irruptions’ are juveniles (4).
The last recorded lemming population explosion happened on the Ungava Peninsula in Northern Quebec (summer of 2013), and the Snowy Owls arrived en masse. A very successful breeding season for these white owls ensued – and a winter eruption of them south of the Arctic Circle followed. Perhaps this year’s irruption of Snowy Owls is the result of a lemming population explosion – somewhere in Upper Canada. (1)
What is their preferred diet outside of the breeding season?
Just about anything with fur, feathers, scales and more. A Snowy Owl in Delaware is observed successfully fighting-off a Turkey Vulture for a bottle-nosed dolphin carcass (1). Birds as large as the Great Blue Herons, Canada Geese, and Brants are not out of reach from these fierce predators – nor are skunks and feral cats (1a). While lying down – lengthwise on its belly at a water hole - this owl somehow catches fish. They will not turn their backs on a meal of amphibians, crustaceans, or beetles. (5) Opportunistic owls.
Many Snowy Owls go north and hunt on Arctic sea ice for sea ducks (e.g. eiders) at open ice-breaks - called polynyas. (4) Those Snowy Owls that venture south in the winter also become pelagic (open water) hunters. They patrol for unsuspecting floating seabirds (1). Most sea ducks (scoters, eiders, mergansers, and more) raft offshore for protection against the pounding surf and terrestrial predators. This terrestrial predator, the Snowy Owl, now becomes a pelagic predator – perhaps unique among owls. What strategies will these naïve sea ducks develop to avoid becoming a mid-night snack of this new airborne threat? Will this big white owl find loons a match to its ferocity?
When is the best time to spot this owl?
Unlike most other owls that hunt at night, the Snowy Owl, which adapts to the continuous summer daylight in the Arctic, will search for prey in light or dark. In the extreme Arctic latitudes with continuous darkness, they hunt. But, most likely, here on Peaks Island, they prefer hunting at dusk and into the night (Please see owl daily movements from ProjectSnowstorm’s website ). They may stay stationary during the day – atop a rooftop or hidden in the marshes. Although these owls may appear tame (some have not encountered a human so are unafraid) the owls do need their space, so please observe at a distance and with caution (please see below for Owl Etiquette below).
Snowy Owl on Backshore Roofstop (2018) Photo © Claudine Weatherford
Are Maine Snowy Owls being tagged?
During the winter of 2016, ProjectSNOWstorm and Maine’s Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) tags a female Snowy Owl captured at the Brunswick Airport – hence her name Brunswick. Released in Wells, she frequents the Carson National Wildlife Refuge (Wells Reserve), extensively scouting the marshes at night before stopping at Isle of Shoals Island off Portsmouth, NH. Before returning north in the spring - she passes over southern Maine. Her last location is on the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec - April 28th, 2016 before her transmitter is unable to ‘talk’ to a cell tower – until just last week when her transmitter ‘checked in’ from coastal New Brunswick, Canada. Her GPS battery is currently being re-charged so that the data collected about her whereabouts for the last two years are available (6).
February 23, 2018 News Release from Project SNOWstorm on Brunswick.
Two other Snowy Owls are captured at Portland International Jetport by USDA AHIS and tagged by BRI: Wells and York. Wells is last detected on November 17, 2017 in Quebec. Unfortunately, York is electrocuted after landing on a faulty transformer (Wells Beach).
Volunteers continue to capture these owls, placing tracking devices on them to follow their daily movements. News releases on Snowy Owl southerly whereabouts from 11/30/17 to PRESENT are available on the ProjectSNOWstorm website.
Tracking data suggest that Snowy Owls move about extensively in a chosen locale perhaps explaining why the Peaks Island owl has been seen so infrequently. Is our Snowy Owl visitor still in Casco Bay and will it soon make another stop on Peaks Island before heading north?
Owl Etiquette (taken directly from Project SNOWstorm website):
“Keep Your Distance
This is the first and most important rule. Just because the owl may tolerate a fairly close approach doesn’t mean you should push the envelope. If the owl is visibly reacting to your presence — fidgeting, repeatedly staring at you, head-bobbing or changing position — you’re too close, and need to back off immediately.
Needless to say, if you’ve flushed the owl you were much too close — and should reconsider your behavior next time.
Fortunately, a vehicle makes a terrific blind, so stay in your car whenever possible. (It’s also a lot warmer on a frigid day.) Use a spotting scope and a telephoto lens, and be content to watch from a safe distance. Be patient, and if you can time your visit late in the day, when the owl typically will become more active, it may approach you, especially if you’re positioned near a favorite perch.
And watching from a distance — when you’re not interfering with the owl’s natural behavior — has its own particular rewards. Researchers spend countless hours watching owls, picking up clues to the surroundings from the owl’s behavior. Is it staring off in one direction consistently? Perhaps there is a red-tailed hawk, bald eagle or another snowy owl hidden over a rise in that direction. Has it raised itself up almost vertically, and is focused with laser intensity on one place? Get ready for it to make a lighting attack on prey.
Do not feed owls:
One of the most damaging things anyone can do (usually to attract the bird for a close-up photo, but sometimes out of a misplaced belief that the owl is starving) is to feed a snowy owl. Because they have little innate fear of humans, snowy owls can very quickly become very habituated to people tossing them mice. Once they associate people with food, the owls are drawn into dangerous situations, such as swooping close to roads. They may also approach people who may harm them, either from fear and ignorance, or from malice.” (6)
1. Weidensaul, Scott. 2014. Have Lemmings, Will Travel.
(1a) Cited Norman Smith from Blue Hills Trailside Museum, Milton, MA and SNOWstorm collaborator)
2. Nemo, Leslie. 2017. Audubon: Birds in the News. Hold onto your bins: Another blizzard of Snowy Owls could be coming.
3. Lemmings: Wikipedia
4. Kaufman, Kenn. 2013. Audubon: Questions and Answers about Snowy Owls.
5. del Hoya, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. eds. (1999). Handbook of Birds of the World. Vol. 5. Barn-owls to Hummingbirds. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
6. ©ProjectSNOWstorm and Google Earth
SNOW is an abbreviation for Snowy Owl. Ornithologists and birders frequently use these abbreviations of bird names. If the bird name is one word, take the first four letters (Bufflehead is BUFF). If the bird name is two words, take the first two letters of the first name and first two letters of the second name (Snowy Owl is SNOW).
Judy Fitch, Lisa Lynch, Claudine Wheatherford, and Steve Eckel (2014 photo)
Sam Wainright, Michelle Brown, Michael LaCombe, and Marty.
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