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Welcome to Snowy Owl Season

Welcome to Snowy Owl Season

by Andy Griswold

With over 10 different sightings already reported in Connecticut—and perhaps a hundred or more from Virginia to Maine—there is no doubt this is an irruption year. In the winter of 2013-14, there was an amazing influx of “snowies”. Scientists report that such irruptions are the result not of lemming shortages in the north, but of periods of lemming abundance.

This results in a highly productive breeding season for the owls, and thus many more young owls heading south. The high number of immature owls during these invasions provides evidence that breeding season in the Arctic was indeed highly successful.

 

A large northern owl, the Snowy Owl is our heaviest owl. It is an unmistakable white raptor that perches prominently in open areas. Open marshes, dunes, farmland and other open areas are good places to look. Although mostly white, they vary in the amount of dark barring on their feathers; the young birds are more heavily barred than adults, and females more than males.

In flight, their heavy build, round head and broad white wings are distinctive. These owls are active during the daytime, often moving from perch to perch and observed hunting. It’s worth emphasizing that there are three basic rules that Snowy Owl observers are expected to follow (borrowed from Project SNOWStorm):

1. Keep your distance.

2. Respect private property.

3. Don’t ever feed an owl.

At the Milford Point Coastal Center, look for this bird on the exposed sandbar in front of the Center, but also perched on flotsam in the marsh. Milford Point, Stratford Point and Stratford’s Long Beach have reported birds this year. One or two have been seen at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

Sightings at Hammonasset Beach State Park, Stratford’s Sikorsky Airport and Stonington Point were recently reported. Additionally, there were at least a couple of reports from inland locations. An all-white Snowy was perching on a rooftop at Gouveia Winery in Wallingford, on December 10, and an early-morning driver saw one fly across the road in Bloomfield at 1:30am.

Snowy Owls are relatively easy to find in an irruption year. Focusing on coastal areas is your best bet. Scan all open areas for a prominent white bump in an exposed area. Sometimes they may be found roosting on a rooftop of a beach cottage, but almost never in a tree. You will do best if you use a spotting scope.

One good way to find a Snowy Owl is to look for a gaggle of warmly-dressed men and women with scopes and cameras on tripods; they are birders who are observing the bird. If it isn’t there, there are lots of winter birds moving down along the shoreline now, including a variety of duck species such as Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, and Common Goldeneye, Red-throated and Common Loon, and many other waterbirds frequenting the same general location as the owl.

The IUCN lists the Snowy Owl as a species of “least concern”.

Andy Griswold is Director of Connecticut Audubon’s EcoTravel Program.Visit CTAudubon.org for more information.

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