A Snowy Christmas Eve

‘Twas the day before Christmas, and out near the dunes,

Were the gulls, long-tailed ducks, the brants, and the loons;

The birders looked all ’round the beach and the air,

In hopes that a Snowy Owl would be there.


AND GUESS WHAT?

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl (Image by David Horowitz)

We found it!!!!

(***Please note: the image above was taken at a far and safe distance and was heavily cropped.)

Dave and I went to Long Beach Island this morning to look for a Snowy Owl that was being reported at the Holgate section of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on Long Beach Island. We tried tracking down some Snowies at Island Beach State Park a few weeks ago (where there 2 are being tracked/studied by Project SNOWstorm), but didn’t find them. So I was hoping we’d have a bit of a Christmas Eve miracle…and we did.

We scanned the dunes with our binoculars while walking along the beach (making sure not to go on them of course!). After about 20 minutes of walking there was no Snowy to be found. Dave asked how far out I wanted to walk since the beach is at least 3 miles out. I said a little farther, because I had a feeling that today was going to be the day.

And then we spotted something in the grass a good distance away. It was pretty far, so at first we weren’t quite sure if we found the owl. We were cautiously optimistic, trying not to get too excited if it turned out to be something else. But as we quietly made our way down the beach it became clear that it really was the owl.

We watched the Snowy from a distance for a few minutes. It was absolutely beautiful. The owl peeked at us through its sleepy eyes then continued to rest. It was breathtaking to see such a magnificent bird. I always dreamed of seeing a Snowy, and I’m so thankful I had an opportunity to spend a few minutes in its presence.

It’s certainly a Christmas Eve that I’ll never forget.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Ready for a Snowy-storm?

It’s that time of year again: Snowy Owl irruption! Many birders across regions of the United States have been observing these black-and-white owls very far away from their home in the tundra.

There’s something magical about the Snowy Owl. These beautiful birds capture our imaginations each winter. Snowy Owls breed high in the arctic and subarctic tundra zones of Canada, so it’s no wonder seeing a Snowy Owl in the United States is a huge deal. So why are these owls showing up further south from their usual winter range?

Snowy_Owl_-_Schnee-Eule
By pe_ha45 [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Snowies are well-equipped for life in the cold, barren tundra. Once breeding season is over the owls typically either: 1. stay at the breeding grounds 2. go even farther north! or 3. move south throughout Canada and the upper Great Plains of the US. But for reasons still be studied, some years Snowies irrupt further south into the United States. An irruption is an unpredictable migration of a large number of birds. Small Snowy Owl irruptions usually happen every 4-5 years, but rarely there are “mega-irruptions”.

Why do these irruptions occur? Scientist don’t quite know, which is where programs like Project SNOWstorm come in. Project SNOWstorm was co-founded by Scott Weidensaul. Since Snowy Owl irruptions are so mysterious, Project SNOWstorm aims to study this phenomenon in order to conserve these marvelous birds.

One thing we do know for certain is that there are some popular myths surrounding Snowy Owls and irruptions. One of the biggest misconceptions is that Snowies irrupt because they are hungry, mainly from a lack of lemmings (one of their main food source). Recent studies have found that the opposite is true: there’s an overabundance of food.

A successful breeding season depends on good lemming populations. When the population drops, these birds may breed less or not at all. But when there’s a boon of lemmings, the owl population soars as well. An average clutch of eggs is between 5-7, but can be as high as 11 in boom years (or as low as 3 in lean times). So successful breeding seasons result in more offspring and potentially large irruptions. Many Snowy Owls that arrive in the United States during an irruption are generally healthy and usually tend to be heavier than in non-irruption years.

One of the ways Project SNOWstorm tracks the owls is through GPS-GMS transmitters. The transmitters are solar-powered, and record locations in altitude, latitude, and longitude. They are programmed to record data at 30 second intervals, so the owls are always being tracked. The transmitters only weigh about 40 grams and attach to the bird by a small backpack. The data is sent through cell towers, so when an owl is out of range, the transmitter can store up to 100,000 locations and send the data when the owl is back in range (even years later!).

So far, 52 owls have been tracked throughout the program’s entirety, but there are 7 currently being watched. 3 happen to be here in New Jersey: Island Beach, Higbee, and Lenape. Island Beach and Lenape were both fitted with a transmitters at Island Beach State Park and Higbee at South Cape May Meadows in Cape May.  The other current owls are Hilton (Rochester, NY), Sterling (Sterling, NY), Chickatawbut (last detected in Quebec), and Wells (Maine).

Of course, not all the Snowies that irrupt get tracked, so there have been tons of owl sightings throughout the country since November. Dave and I went to Island Beach State Park a few weeks ago looking for Snowies, but were unsuccessful. There’s been reports of Snowy Owls on Long Beach Island, so I would love to see if we can find one over winter break.

What should you do if you happen to see a Snowy Owl? You should keep a respectful distance and never feed the owls. Many Snowy Owls that irrupt are found on beaches (since it resembles the tundra to them), so please, keep off the dunes! Observing Snowy Owl etiquette is extremely important for the health of the owls, while making the experience for birders more enjoyable and safe.

To learn more about Project SNOWstorm, check out their website projectsnowstorm.org.

Have you ever seen a Snowy Owl? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!