Monday, January 6, 2014

On white wings

As you may have heard, this is an irruption winter for snowy owls.  A few northern birds range wide and far when their boreal food sources fail - crossbills, grosbeaks, even red-breasted nuthatches.  The 2012/2013 winter saw an irruption of all of these species. 

But the snowies this winter are different story.  To the experts' knowledge, their arrival here en masse is the result of an overabundance of lemmings, their favorite food, this summer.  Nesting owls were able to raise more chicks than usual, and now with winter in full swing, these younger birds are heading south to find food and shelter far from their normal range.

For me, I've been enjoying having at least 3 snowy owls in Lancaster County.  I was fortunate to see two of them at once, two weeks ago, on an Amish farm east of the city, with at least 30 other watchers.

This last weekend was a special treat, though.  We were heading to Atlantic City, NJ, and I was aware that 2-3 snowy owls were being seen regularly at the nearby Brigantine Unit of the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

The Atlantic City skyline, snow geese in flight, and the snowy owl just below and right of center.

This birding spot is a special one to me.  But this trip was wild - sunny, cloudy, freezing, cold, calm, windy, snowy - we had it all.

On Saturday morning, we arrived around 9 am, prepared for birding in 15 degree weather. That's officially the coldest I've ever birded.  Fortunately, it was sunny with no wind.  We also had to leave our car behind.

So we were on foot, and experienced so much that we wouldn't have from a car (including the temps!).  More on that later, but for now, just know that the owls were elusive.  That wasn't true on Sunday.  We returned to much warmer temperatures and the drive still closed to vehicles.  There were more people, but few bothered to walk out more than a mile, which is just about where we found "our" snowy.

The other snowy owls I have seen were resting and at most turning their heads occasionally.  This one was far more animated, and also came a bit nearer.  It flew three times, preened, watched the snow geese fly over, and bobbed its head quite a bit.

Snowies are as large as red-tailed hawks, lengthwise, but are heavier and have a wider wingspan.

A small pontoon plane was flying low patterns over the refuge, and stirred up two large flocks of snow geese as it passed.  The owl took keen interest in them.

After at least an hour and a half of viewing, the owl flew over the marshes to the southwest.  

I've also posted some videos (definitely not great quality, you've been warned) on youtube: here, here, and here.  The first is the best, the others were taken with digital zoom and are sasquatch-level work, but do show interesting behavior.

If you are interested in snowy owls in general, a good centralized spot to track owl sightings and catch up on news and research can be found on Nemesis Bird, just one page of an all-around excellent blog about all things bird.

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