SANDY HOOK – For birders, it is an exciting time of year to be strolling the paths and roadways of Sandy Hook. It’s a time when casual observers can all of a sudden come upon a snowy owl.
Park Service officials stress the important of observing Snowy Owls, and all wildlife at Sandy Hook, from a distance. Visitors are also reminded not to feed owls or any other animals species, including deer.
Abuse of any of the regulations designed to protect wildlife can bring detrimental results for the observer, and can be dangerous to wildlife, in some cases severely impacting their migratory patterns.
Unlike most owls, Snowy Owls are diurnal, which means they hunt both day and night, and can be sighted during the day. They are generally found in open areas which most resembles their breeding habitat in the tundra where they live. That could include coastal dunes and other coastal habitat areas along the Jersey coast.
Snowy owls have bristles on their beaks that help them sense nearby objects even with their beak practically completely covered with facial feathers. It is hooked and used for griping prey and tearing flash. Snowy owls are hunters, feeding on small mammals, including rodents, rabbits, squirrels, geese and waterfowl. In the tundra, they eat lemmings, averaging about 1600 every years.
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It is the 24 hour summer daylight in the Arctic that makes the snowy owl diurnal. They typically migrate studying their first year of life, moving for the winter months with New Jersey the normal southern edge of their range. Historically, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, snowy owls travel southward their first year, then every four years or so in what is called irruption. But even that appears to be changing, and snowy owl sightings have increased in recent years.
“Snowies” are one of the heaviest owl species in North America, primarily because of all the feathers they have to provide the insulation to live in the Arctic temperatures. Even their feet are covered with fluffy slipper-like feathers. The male of the species hunts and brings the food for the female to feed to the young.
Snowy owls have a wingspan of four to five feet, and have powerful wings that enable them to accelerate quickly on unsuspecting prey; they have a life expectancy of ten years on average. They are almost completely white, with females having dark bars across her plumage.
If you see a Snowy Owl at Sandy Hook be careful to keep a safe distance and simply stands still and observe it quietly. Do not play bird calls on a phone or any device, and do not feed the owls. If taking photo, be sure you are at a safe distance and can avoid flash. Keep noises to a minimum and report any sightings of an injured owl to the Park Service.