It’s an owl invasion!

cc BigA888 http://www.flickr.com/photos/biga888/6933668645/Photo by BigA888 // cc

An astounding number of snowy owls (yes, like Hedwig) are showing up in the eastern United States this winter.

During the summer snowy owls nest in the arctic tundra. Some owls migrate south for the winter; although, the number of owls that chose migrate and the distances they travel varies from year to year. The cause of this variation is still unknown, but it may be associated with changes in the lemming population (the owls’ preferred food in the arctic). Regardless of the reason, thiswinter’s migration is the largest of the past two decades with greater numbers of snowy owls migrating greater distances than usual. In just the first week of December over 350 snowy owls were seen in New York instead of the typical 50!

An owl helps with oceanographic research! Photo by John Lund, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
An owl helps out with oceanographic research! Photo by John Lund, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Snowy owls hunt by waiting patiently until they see or hear a small animal and then swooping down for the attack. Snowies prefer open areas where they can easily find their prey — places like fields, marshes, beaches… and airports. The large influx of owls, plus their affinity for airports, has even raised concerns about airplane safety and stirred up quite a bit of controversy this winter.

So, if you’re in the eastern US and you’re interested in seeing a snowy owl, this is the time to do it. A good place to start is a birding listserve or this map to see where owls have been sighted recently. Earlier in January several snowy owls were seen in Nahant out at East Point near the MSC and on the beach by the causeway. The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Newburyport, MA is always a favorite hangout for owls (and birders) — 24 snowies were counted near Newburyport in one day at the end of December!

Snowy owls are active during the day, spending a lot of time stationary in open spaces looking for prey. Grab a pair of binoculars and keep your eyes open for a white bump sitting on the ground or perched on a stump:

cc doviende http://www.flickr.com/photos/doviende/76189324/Photo by doviende //cc

Or, just look out for groups of people like this:

cc Brendan A Ryan http://www.flickr.com/photos/brendan2010/8016155898/Photo by Brendan A Ryan // cc

If you are lucky enough to spot a snowy owl, please do not approach it too closely. Being disturbed by humans stresses the birds and makes it more difficult for them to hunt and survive!

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