MISQUAMICUT — It’s the last thing you would expect to see on a beach walk: a large, white owl with bright yellow eyes and feathered feet that looks like it came right out of the tundra. In fact, it did travel here from the tundra of the Canadian Arctic, where snowy owls, also known as snowies, usually live and breed.
Snowy owls have been arriving on the New England coast for several weeks, and are being observed as far south as North Carolina. One even made it to Bermuda. Many others have also shown up in Wisconsin, Michigain, Ohio, western New York, Indiana and Missouri.
Rachel Farrell, of East Providence, who runs the online Rhode Island birders’ network known as Pollypie, receives and publishes updates on bird sightings several times a day. She said the current influx of snowy owls, known as an irruption, is one of the largest in recent years, and may end up being of historic proportions.
“From a historical perspective, the numbers of snowy owls are not yet close to other documented irruptions (most notably 1926-27, 1941-42, 1945-46 and 1949-50),” she said. “However, we may still be early in this year’s irruption, so stay tuned. Overall, this may turn into one of the largest irruptions in modern times.”
University of Rhode Island ecology professor Peter Paton said this year’s irruption was the largest he had ever witnessed.
“The number of snowy owls in R.I. this year is unprecedented in my experience, with reports of owls at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge (up to three birds), Warwick, Jamestown, Trustom Pond NWR, Charlestown and Westerly,” he said. “Owls tend to concentrate in coastal areas and in open grassland habitats, where they can hunt for small mammals (meadow voles in R.I., lemmings on their breeding grounds in the tundra in Canada).”
The owls have come here for one reason: food. In the Arctic, snowy owls eat rodents called lemmings almost exclusively. When lemming populations boom, owl pairs produce more eggs and fledge more chicks. In years when the populations crash, the owls may not even breed at all.
In a good lemming year, there are so many more chicks that there is not enough food to support them through the Arctic winter, so they travel thousands of miles south, often ending up on the coast. While it’s difficult to determine the sexes of the birds, scientists agree that they are immature and most likely hatched this year.
Marshall Illiff, project manager of Cornell University’s eBird online database of bird observations, and a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s ornithology program, said that snowy owls are adept and resourceful predators, and those that spend time on the coast have developed a taste for ducks.
“They’ll definitely go for small mammals, but I think much more, they’re hunting ducks, and we see a lot of these snowy owls, the ones at Logan Airport, for example, do a lot of flying out over Boston Harbor and actively hunting bufflehead and some of the small waterfowl,” he said. “I’ve seen them do that at dusk, right over Boston Harbor. It’s pretty incredible to think of these owls preying on waterfowl, but that does seem to be what a lot of these snowy owls are doing.”
The current irruption offers Rhode Islanders a rare opportunity to see a bird that usually lives in the far north, where most people will never visit.
“I think it’s a phenomenal opportunity to get people involved in nature, and if there’s a snowy owl that you can set up a telescope on and just grab passers-by and say ‘take a look at this cool bird,’ it really engages people in loving nature and wanting to protect it as so many of us do,” Illiff said.
But scientists caution that people should enjoy the birds from a distance. The owls are exhausted from their long journeys and are usually starving. Federal law also prohibits harassing the birds or approaching them too closely.
“Many of these young birds are probably in relatively poor condition and need to hunt and rest,” Paton said. “Therefore it is important for the public to give them a buffer of at least 100 yards away, or one football field, to minimize disturbing these birds.”
Farrell said there have been several cases of people harassing the owls.
“Unfortunately in situations like this year, there are certain bad apples who have flushed snowy owls, just to get good photographs,” she said. “Flushing an owl takes away feeding and resting time and causes the owl to use energy that it needs for other tasks to stay alive. I’ve had three reports of people flushing snowy owls by chasing them with their cellphone cameras!”
The fact that a snowy owl has been resting on Misquamicut beach does not necessarily mean it will spend the winter there. The owls are almost always on the move, searching for productive hunting grounds.
“They’re probably always very, very mobile, moving around both in winter and in summer to try to find optimal prey densities,” Illiff explained.
“They’re one of the biggest owls, and probably individual birds are moving hundreds or thousands of miles from year to year.”