History is being made this winter. There has been an extraordinary flight of mostly young male and female Snowy Owls from nests on the tundra in the Arctic southward into New Jersey, New York, and New England.
There are sightings all through the northeast, with strays seen as far south as Cape Hatteras on the coast of North Carolina and even Bermuda, about 640 miles west-northwest of Cape Hatteras. Many scientists with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are saying the winter of 2013-2014 might very well be forever known as the season when the largest documented sightings of Snowy Owls took place along the Atlantic Coast of the United States.
Locally, the area seems to be rich with Snowy Owl sightings. Both New Jersey and New York are currently involved in an historic incursion of Snowy Owls.
In New Jersey, there has been at least one, sometimes two or three Snowy Owls seen at any one time at Sandy Hook, near to the entrance of New York Harbor. There have also been sightings in Sea Bright, Monmouth Beach, Long Branch, Belmar, and farther south along the coast at Island Beach State Park, Barnegat Light, Holgate, and Brigantine.
Across Lower New York Bay, there have been at times as many as four owls seen at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, and other sightings at Breezy Point, Jamaica Bay, and along the south shore of Long Island; and up the Hudson River Valley too. It seems there hasn't been a coastline in the region without at least one owl report.
Seeing a Snowy Owl is usually a rare event. Maybe every five or six years just one will show up somewhere in New York or New Jersey. An owl might favor a particular place for weeks, other times it's a one-day event. Sightings are highly variable and the owl's wanderings are unpredictable. There are no exclusive Snowy Owl vantage points. The owls just appear anywhere, like magic. They are infrequent visitors from the Arctic.
This year, however, Snowy Owls have invaded the New York & New Jersey environment in a big way. With dozens of owls being spotted all over the region this has become a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It has never happened on this scale in recent memory.
Of course the news has not been all good. At least two Snowy owls were shot and killed at airports in the New York and New Jersey area where local transportation officials are still tense after the “Miracle on the Hudson” event in 2009, when a plane that took off from New York's LaGuardia airport carrying 155 people successfully splash landed on the Hudson River after flying into a flock of geese. The good news is that after much quick public outcry, local Port Authority officials agreed to catch and relocate the birds, similar to what they do at Logan International Airport in Boston.
No one is quite sure exactly why so many Snowy Owls are showing up. Normally a few juvenile Snowy Owls are seen during what is called an irruption or a lemming irruption. It's a natural event likely linked to lemmings, a small rodent that accounts for around 90 percent of a Snowy Owl's diet. When lemmings are in abundance, the population of Snowy Owls increases. When winter begins on the tundra, the lemmings are hard to find. With too many owls for the available food supply, numerous Snowy Owls, primarily young birds, fly south in search of other prey.
Most of the owls seen in New York and New Jersey have been young males and females born last summer. They can be identified by the black or dark brown markings on their mostly white feathers. Mature adult males usually are completely white, and more likely to stay closer to their home range.
Could it be that the young Snowy Owls are here because they are starving? According to Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist at Maine Audubon reported in the December 14, 2013 Maine Sunday Telegram newspaper, "These birds are desperate, they’re under stress, and they’re going as far south as it takes to find food. The Snowy Owl population in northern Quebec surged this year, with some researchers noting record numbers of nests, larger clutches and parent owls piling up lemmings around some nests. Female snowy owls adjust their egg production to food availability, laying more eggs when the lemming population is high. Then, when the owl population swells, the lemming population falls, in part because an adult Snowy Owl can eat as many as five lemmings a day," Hitchcox said
Most likely, the Snowy Owl population irrupted because of an extremely abundant crop of lemmings during the previous summer. With more food available, many more hatchlings survived to become adult owls. Once winter arrived, the birds needed food to survive, especially with an unusually cold and snowy weather in eastern Canada. Older owls drove juveniles out of their territory to force young owls south. The birds are looking for food, and they'll go as far south as they need to in order to find it.
The most favored location this year for "snowies" seems to be near a beach. At first, you might think there is little in common between a sandy beach and the barren lands of the tundra. But it turns out their similarities can be relevant to Snowy Owls. Both are stark landscapes with hardy, fast growing grasses, sedges, dwarfed shrubs and small evergreen trees dominating the view. The wide open, windswept beach must look and feel very similar to the breeding area of the high Arctic tundra.
Most importantly, there are abundant food resources available to the owls along the coast. In the past, people have reported seeing Snowy Owls eat small mammals, such as rabbits, voles, and squirrels, and other birds too, including ducks, geese and grebes. To me, it seems the young owls rest during the day and start to hunt for prey right before sunset, starting around 4pm or so. They usually watch for prey and then pursue it in a swift, noiseless flight, catching prey in its talons.
Who knows how long the Snowy Owls will remain. It's best to get out to a local beach soon before this historic event is over. If you spot a Snowy Owl, though, please show respect and stay far away and leave the poor animals alone.
For all the joy an irruption year brings to people, it often brigs anxiety to the immature owls. Since the owls are out of their element and often stressed and hungry to start with, people adding constant worry by creeping up very close is certainly not good for the owls. Every time snowies move into areas with lots of people, there are certain expected conflicts, often involving trespassing and birds being chased and flushed out into the open, sometimes repeatedly. Please conduct yourself thoughtfully and respectfully as possible, even if other people sometimes do not. Think about the welfare of the wild animal first.
Please keep a respectful distance and minimize your disturbance by keeping quiet. The birds are frequently fatigued from their long journey and need rest. With high-powered optics, and magnification on even small cameras approaching 50 times, great views and pictures can be had from safe distances.
Having said that, enjoy this historic opportunity to see a wild animal from the Arctic. Do what you can to encourage your family and friends to enjoy and protect wild birds and safeguard their habitat from development and the negative effects from global warming, especially their breeding environment no matter how far away it might be.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/