Good Binoculars and Hot Chocolate Improves This Outing
Owls can be spooky, especially since they are so often seen at dawn and dusk; they rarely provide an adequate view. Currently our region is experiencing a somewhat spooky appearance of large numbers of Snowy owls from Canada and the Arctic. Most of us will never see one in our lifetime, which after my limited experience with snowy owls, I believe is something of a shame.
Two years ago I became, in the parlance of serious birders, a “chaser”. A chaser is someone who hears about a particular bird he is interested in seeing, tracks down information on its where-a-bouts, and chases after that bird to view it. For some that means an addition to their birding life list; to me it means I hope to see a particular bird and imprint it in my memory.
Friends heard about a snowy owl in New Jersey, tracked down some plugged-in birders and obtained directions to its location near Scott’s Mountain hawk watch in New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Lehigh University. I saw my first snowy owl there, right where my sources said it would be. (Hint: You must have reliable sources.)
An important factor with snowy owls is that they are out-and-about during the day, and can often be seen because they are large and mostly white.
I had become a low level chaser, and duplicated the trip two weeks later to share that owl with my wife. It was worth it, it truly was a treat. Later I successfully chased another snowy owl to a spot south of Carlisle, Pa, and did so again last year. Snowy owls are big, beautiful and unusual looking birds.
So far I have found two random snowy owls that visited from the far north. It was exciting and I enjoyed it. This year’s multiple snowy owl sightings indicate we are having a fairly large snowy owl irruption across the region, and numerous birders and nature types are getting to see some of the giant, white owls from the north. This is a much more exciting occurrence, and worth looking into.
For snowy owls an irruption is when brown and collared lemmings (rodents) are in short supply in the owl’s normal winter range and the owls “irrupt”, or travel far enough south to find food so they can survive the winter. Irruptions are not the same as the normal, seasonal north – south migration done by some owl species.
Ornithological history records that the first snowy owl irruption in North America occurred the winter of 1833-34. From then until 1945 there were 24 snowy owl irruptions, occurring at intervals of 3 – 5 years. Snowy owl irruptions have since continued at roughly the same intervals. The irruption in the winter of 1926-27 featured 2,363 snowy owl sightings in the eastern U.S., though 90% of them reportedly settled in Michigan, Maine, New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota.
To get an idea about the ignorance and bias against snowy owls in the past, one only need know that about 1,500 snowy owls were taken to taxidermists in Ontario and Quebec as a result of the massive 1926-27 irruption.
Lemming populations rise and fall dramatically between boom and bust, though the cycle is still not fully understood. When lemming populations drop drastically it impacts snowy owls severely. Conversely, large lemming populations often results in large owl populations.
Drastically cold weather, especially with freezing rain or crusted snow, dramatically restricts the owl/s ability to catch lemmings, which might cause an irruption over a period of time. Without food northern owls face a drastic loss of weight, and endure a race against time to find food. If the owls survive such a season their reproduction rate the following spring might be naturally restricted.
It is important to realize that most irruption years do not cause mass starvation. Rather, after feeding and regaining their weight the owls return north to their regular breeding range to breed. Adult weight is 4.5 – 5.5 lbs., with females being larger than males. Snowy owls return north because their breeding areas provide improved breeding conditions.
Really serious birders have probably already gone chasing snowy owls in the region, but it might be time for more of us moderately involved birders to take up the chase. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have numerous snowy owls; many have been spotted in both states.
Check www.PAAudubon.org and www.NJAudubon.org (including their e-Bird feature) to learn more about snowy owls, including the locations of recent sightings. Use e-Bird to post your sightings and photos. Enjoy
A Little Quiz- Name the below owls
A Little Quiz- Name the below owls