Snowy Owl Invasion of 2013-2014

1-SnOwl byCSuttonHaving written the book, How to Spot an Owl, and studied owls for the past 35 years, Clay and I have NEVER seen a winter like this one and probably never will again in our lifetime.  This winter’s Snowy Owl invasion is that special.

This winter invasion involves hundreds upon hundreds, maybe thousands, of Snowy Owls.  No one can put a firm number on it yet and probably won’t be able to do so until winter’s end.

Invasion of 1926-1927 When 1,000s of Snowy Owls Were Killed

One of our favorite books is the Book of Owls, by Lewis Wayne Walker.  Walker wrote of the Snowy Owl invasion during the winter of 1926-1927, stretching from Canada to North Carolina and west to the Dakotas.  Sadly it was the dark ages for predators.  Many were killed that winter and taken to taxidermists.  One ornithologist checked in with taxidermist shops across the northern states and learned of 2,363 Snowy Owls killed and brought in to be mounted as trophies.  Sadly the death toll was many, many times higher since most Snowy Owls were killed for target practice or “predator control” and left behind.

We’ve come a long way since those dark days for predators.  But still there is concern.  News coverage has been nonstop this winter.  Droves of people are out and about looking to see a Snowy Owl.  Many have never encountered one before and have only seen them on television or in Harry Potter films.

In our book, How to Spot an Owl, published 20 years ago in 1994, we included “Owling Etiquette.”  We think it is timely to share it once again and bring it up to date as it applies to this winter’s invasion — an invasion coupled with today’s technology (cell phone cameras) and unprecedented easy access to Snowy Owls via newspaper coverage, text messages, e-bird, etc.


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Do not approach too closely. Arrow points to a Snowy Owl on Stone Harbor Point.
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The same bird (my digiscoped photo, taken from a safe distance)

 Owling Etiquette

  • If you are heading out to see a Snowy Owl, don’t leave your binoculars at home.  Take binoculars and a spotting scope (if available) so you don’t have to get too close to get a good look.  Chances are there will be other viewers.  Don’t be shy.  Ask to get a look through a telescope if one is available.
  • Do not approach too closely.  You’ll know when you’re pushing the limits.  The bird will turn from a sleepy, closed-eyes owl, to a glaring owl looking directly at you — a potential threat in their space.
  • A photograph is not a good enough excuse to crowd and disturb an owl.  Chances are there will be other viewers with zip-zap camera systems that can capture an excellent shot from a safe distance away.  Don’t be shy.  Ask if they’d e-mail you one of their photos.
  • If you should unexpectedly discover an owl, be very still and quiet and do everything in slow motion
  • If you are too close to the owl and it fidgets and continues to look alarmed (when it should be sleeping during daylight hours), back off very slowly and quietly, keeping your profile low.
  • If you should come upon owls roosting by day in wooded settings (owls such as Long-eared, Barn, and Saw-whet Owls), sink slowly to the ground to appear less threatening.  If the owl no longer feels threatened, you may get to watch it relax – a real treat.
  • How close is too close? Actually that is circumstantial.  This winter we watched a Snowy Owl at Reeds Beach perched beyond the end of the road end, on a piling across a waterway — much closer than we’ve ever been to a Snowy Owl.  If the water had not been between us we never would have gotten that close.
  • Use basic common-sense etiquette at all times.  Respect private property, “no trespassing” signs, “Keep off the Dunes” signs, and “area closed” signs in places such as Holgate.   Your bad behavior could make visitors no longer welcome to an area.
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Snowy Owls are attracted to areas that most resemble the open tundra, places like Stone Harbor Point
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Snowy Owl “hiding” by the one bit of vegetation out at the end of Stone Harbor Point
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Even though perched right out in the open, they often sit next to a bit of shelter which helps camouflage them

 Where to find Snowy Owls: Tundra-like Areas

Snowy Owls are attracted to areas that most resemble the open tundra, their normal habitat — a vast area above tree line, far from roads and people.  Here in New Jersey most of the Snowy Owls are drawn to the coast, especially areas that have been spared development – natural beaches, windswept dunes, and the marshes behind the barrier islands.  You might find a Snowy Owl sitting on the open beach, a dune fence, an Osprey platform or muskrat house in the marsh, or up in the dunes.  Sometimes a rooftop offers a Snowy Owl not only a good view of feeding habitat, but also a respite from beach vehicles and beach walkers, people and their dogs.

It is important to realize the value of natural habitat to these birds.  They are selecting meadows, marshes, fields, and prairie-like areas (airports), open areas that harbor potential prey (mice and voles and birds).

While here Snowy Owls are preying on rodents as well as rabbits and birds, including ducks in back bay and ocean waters.  They’re opportunistic hunters like most predators, probably finding lots of prey during tough winter conditions when other wildlife is struggling.

It is Easier Than Ever to Find a Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl map on eBird is updated day-by-day by people all over with their sightings.  Be sure the date box at the top shows November-April, 2013-2014 to see sightings from this winter’s invasion.  Once there you can zoom in closer and closer until you can see sighting details in your own area.

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Snowy Owls are quite sedentary by day, often appearing to be sleeping with their eyes closed or nearly closed
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By late afternoon Snowy Owls come alive and begin to hunt, often from their perch – turning this way and that way as they detect prey with their keen vision and hearing.

Do Snowy Owls Ever Fly or Open Their Eyes?

This lovely northern owl, like other owls, is quite sedentary by day.  Most owls are nocturnal, night-time hunters.  Snowy Owls hunt through the night, but are also crepuscular (active during the dim hours of dawn or dusk) when here in winter.  They begin to get very active as dusk approaches.

Most owls hide in deep cover by day – hence why owls are so elusive.  But Snowy Owls, being birds of the open Arctic tundra, often sit in plain view during the day.  Through the day they appear to be sleeping with their eyes nearly closed, but they are ever vigilant for ground predators and other potential threats.  The daytime is their down time.  Once you’ve found a Snowy Owl, there’s an excellent chance it will remain at that very spot all day long unless it is harassed or flushed or threatened.  So, by all means give them their space and don’t crowd them.

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This Snowy Owl has detected prey. It is trying to get a better look and a better listen

If you want to see a Snowy Owl fly and hunt, you have a brief window at the end of the day.  Return in the late afternoon, about 4:00 p.m. and plan to watch the owl you found earlier in the day as it comes alive and begins to hunt.  Bring your binoculars and a telescope and study it from a safe distance.

In preparation for owl encounters watch The Magic of the Snowy Owl PBS Nature Series film.

How Long Will Snowy Owls Be Here?

The few Snowy Owls that wander south most years begin to appear around Thanksgiving.  That was the case this winter.  But by early December record-setting numbers appeared.  Snowy Owls will spend the winter here, remaining through March when some birds will head north.  Others may remain through much of April and then head north.  They will return north to the Arctic tundra, a land mostly beyond our reach, far far away.  They may or may not return to where they were born, as it has been proven that Snowy Owls are highly nomadic in response to prey abundance (such as lemming population explosions).

Researchers are Following Snowy Owls This Winter

Our own encounters with Snowy Owls this winter have included intimate experience with Assateague, one of the tagged birds being followed by Project SNOWstorm.  Follow Project SNOWstorm and consider supporting their research, assembled in record time to study this amazing invasion.

If you haven’t seen a Snowy Owl yet this winter, don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when they’re here in incredible numbers.  A good place to start might be Forsythe NWR where one to three Snowy Owls have been seen since late November, either on the wildlife drive or sitting on the visitor center.

Head out for owls, though heed our advice and practice owling etiquette.  Speak up if you witness someone crowding an owl.  Chances are they are misinformed or unaware and think the owl is tame (and not a wild creature) or not bothered by crowding (which we all know is far from the truth).  Send them to this website so they can be informed and enjoy these Arctic visitors without disturbing them.

Check out my other post about this winter’s Snowy Owl bonanza (full of additional information) on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.

Happy Owling