Snowy owls make an appearance
December 11, 2013 —
The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), made famous by “Hedwig” the snowy owl that was a gift to Harry Potter in the popular book series, is not an owl normally seen in this region. They spend their summers breeding at the northernmost tundra regions of Canada and Alaska. Unlike most owls, snowy owls feed diurnally, or during the daytime. They have no choice in the arctic, where it’s daylight everyday most the summer. Feather-covered feet and nostrils shielded by feathers are a few of many adaptations that this owl possesses.
As winter approaches, some snowy owls migrate from their breeding grounds and end up wintering in northernmost states of the U.S. such as New England and the northern tier of New York State (NYS). Once every few years, however, these owls display irruptive behavior (when they travel beyond their normal winter range) and are sighted farther south in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and southern NYS, including Long Island.
This fall looks like one of the more significant irruptions of snowy owls there has been for the past several years. Sightings during the last three weeks include areas of Orange and Sullivan counties in New York. Wintering areas favored by snowy owls are likely to be open fields in this region. Along the coast, snowys favor dune habitats, and there have been many sightings along beaches of New York and New Jersey. This species can be observed on the ground, in trees, or even on rooftops as they scan for prey.
A female snowy owl was rescued in Sullivan County during the first week of December and was turned over to the Delaware Valley Raptor Center (DVRC) in Milford, PA. It was found to be very emaciated (2.5 pounds, about half her normal weight). Bill Streeter, director of the DVRC, initiated treatment, but despite his valiant efforts, it died early this past Sunday.
Snowy owls weigh four to five pounds and are largely white; females have a little more dark barring. In a snow-covered field, look for what appears to be a mound of dirty snow; it may be a well camouflaged owl. If you see a snowy owl, stay in your vehicle if possible and resist the temptation to get too close. If the bird flushes, it is using precious energy it would otherwise use to hunt or to migrate; like eagles, minimum disturbance is crucial to this specie’s wellbeing. Keep your binoculars, spotting scope, or telephoto camera handy, and with a little luck, you may spot one of Hedwig’s friends this winter.