Snowy Owls Head South In Biggest Numbers In 50 Years

Jan 3, 2014

Birders in the Northeast are enjoying a rare spectacle this winter: sightings of the snowy owl.

Low supplies of food in the birds’ usual habitat — the Arctic — have sent some snowy owls south in search of prey, and they are sparking the imaginations of those who get a glimpse of the rare bird.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Patrick Skahill of WNPR went searching for snowy owls along the Connecticut coast.


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They may be harder to spot today because of the blizzard, but snowy owls have been invading, heading south in the biggest numbers in 50 years in search of food. This is causing problems at airports because runways resemble the owl's native Arctic tundra, flat and wide open. Between New York's JFK and LaGuardia, and New Jersey's Newark, flat plains were struck by snowy owls last month. And two of the beautiful white birds were actually shot before that was stopped because of protest from animal activists.

Now, for instance, at Logan Airport here in Boston, sound canons are used to shoo the birds away, which may be why one showed up on the roof of my post office in Cambridge. An owl popped up that brought birders in droves. Listener Dave Kindy just sent us an incredibly picture of one in his backyard in Scituate, Mass. Send yours too. We'll post them at hereandnow.org.

Meanwhile, from the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WNPR's Patrick Skahill went searching for these majestic, head-turning beasts along the Connecticut coast.

PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: From Harry Potter's Hedwig to the owl of Athena, there's something magical about owls.

MILAN BULL: If you like owls, this is the quintessential owl to get excited about. I mean, it's a big, white, snowy bird from the high Arctic.

SKAHILL: That's Milan Bull from the Connecticut Audubon Society.

BULL: They're spectacular birds, and they look so out of place. I mean, you're walking along the beach like this, and there's this big white owl. Most people look at it that they can't believe it. Is that real?

SKAHILL: We're walking at Milford Point, an eight-acre barrier beach at the mouth of the Housatonic River searching for snowies. Yellow-eyed birds that are about two feet tall with brilliant white feathers. The owls have been popping up in unusually high numbers across Connecticut.

BULL: This year's incursion I can remember since about the 1970s.

SKAHILL: Bull says, part of the reason for this eruption of owls is low food supplies up north. Snowies hang out on the flat tundra, hunting lemmings and other small mammals. But when food supplies run out, young owls often head south in search of prey. They're attracted to coastal dunes, which mimic the tundra and house a variety of small rodents.

Bull says the snowies won't nest here, but they will spend a few weeks looking for food. At the beach, Milan Bull pulls out his binoculars and begins scanning the horizon.

BULL: A lot of ducks and gulls, but the owl is not in residence.

SKAHILL: So Bull suggests we head over to Stratford Point, an Audubon observation post a few miles down the Connecticut coast. We hopped in our cars, drive over and starts scanning the horizon near an airport. At first, it looks like the trip was another bust. But then...

BULL: There is (unintelligible).


BULL: God, oh my. I didn't even look up there.



SKAHILL: Describe where it is.

BULL: It's on the peak of our roof at the office in Lordship.

SKAHILL: The bird is about 15 feet away from us. We can see the yellow in its eyes as its head rotated wildly. Frankly, we were a little too close.

BULL: Let's get in the car. So back off so we don't we flush him.

SKAHILL: I think that we can, and then we'll talk there. About 50 yards away, Bull sets up his scope, and we began observing the snowy owl. It's a juvenile with black bars over its brilliant white feathers. Bull says it's likely this is the first time this bird from way up north has ever seen humans.

BULL: And so, oftentimes, they're not wary at first, you know? People can get up fairly close, but we're trying to - because they're under so much stress, you know, the lack of food, that's why they're here. And we're trying to ask people to stay back, give them some space.

SKAHILL: Owls have eyes that are fixed in their head, which Bull says explains the wild head rotations. And then there are the talons.

BULL: Big, powerful strong talons, they're really efficient lemming traps. Yeah, totally(ph). They don't miss, very seldom.


BULL: Oh, there he goes.

SKAHILL: The birds zipped over to a nearby telephone pole. And after about 20 minutes, it flew off. Snowy owls are solitary birds, and they're highly transient. So it's hard to pin down exactly how much longer this one will stay in Connecticut. But if you're walking around the Northeast this winter, it's possible you'll stumble across one. Bull says snowy owls have been seen as far south as the Carolinas, and one was even spotted in Bermuda.

For HERE AND NOW, I'm Patrick Skahill.


Beautiful, those snowy owls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.