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It's A Banner Year For Snowy Owls

Publication: The Southampton Press
By Virginia Garrison   Dec 17, 2013 1:16 PM
Feb 11, 2014 1:55 PM

Snowy owls have been visiting Long Island in record numbers this winter.

The owls must be enjoying the snow, considering that they fly here from the Arctic Circle.

“This was a record year,” said Larry Penny of the Montauk Christmas Bird Count, which racked up 11 on December 14. Bird-watchers saw four in Montauk, five on Gardiner’s Island and two on Napeague that day.

Mr. Penny, who writes a nature column for The East Hampton Star, said he continues to get calls about an owl on Hicks Island and another near the west jetty of Montauk Harbor.

“The mice that they like are under the snow,” he said. “They also take ducks from the water, so that’s what they probably would be feeding on.

“One meal goes a long way,” he added. “They just sit and wait; they don’t fly around like hawks.”

“I’ve been bird-watching 25 years, and this is the most active snowy owl season ever,” said Joe Giunta, who leads bird walks for the South Fork Natural History Society and New York City Audubon, as well as the Christmas Bird Count in Brooklyn, which on December 14 yielded an all-time record of 15 snowy owls.

The snowy season started the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and typically lasts until mid- to late February, when the birds head back north, Mr. Giunta said back in December.

The distinguished-looking creatures have also been spotted in Hampton Bays and in East Quogue, as well as on Fire Island and at Jones Beach, Point Lookout and Robert Moses State Park to the west. Snowies are drawn to tundra-like, open expanses like sand dunes, beaches, marshes and—unfortunately—airports. A number were shot at JFK this winter

after owls flew into airplanes and before the airport switched to a trapping and relocation program.

“The public was outraged—they are a charismatic species,” said Don Riepe, a naturalist with the American Littoral Society and former manager of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge who serves on a task force trying to make the airport less attractive to wildlife. Mr. Riepe said there are even more snowy owls at Logan International Airport in Boston, to the north, and that last year one owl made it to Hawaii, only to be exterminated there at an airport. Two snowy owls were reported in Bermuda late last year, according to Mr. Giunta.

“This is a major irruption,” Mr. Riepe said, adding that the number of snowies along the coast, most likely stopping somewhere between Maine and North Carolina, will always vary, but rarely as much as in this banner year.

“It could be that it was a really good breeding year, so there’s a lot of juveniles wandering around” to avoid competing for resources up north, Mr. Riepe said. Alternatively, it could also be a crash in the population of lemmings, the snowy owl’s main prey in its homeland, or a combination of both those factors and the weather.

Mike Bottini, a naturalist, educator and outdoors columnist for The Press, said that those who study birds have been hard-pressed to find a consistent correlation, but that the owls who travel south tend to be young.

“They look for tundra-like areas ... we have a lot of duneland,” he said. “The immature females arrive first ... then the immature males. It’s rare to see an adult.” Mr. Bottini had paddled out near Hicks Island and Goff Point off Napeague this year to get a glimpse of one without success. He did see one at Fire Island, though.

Mr. Giunta said the snowy owl has a wing span of about 4½ feet and stands at about 22 inches. The owls weigh about 4 pounds and have yellow eyes and no tufts. Immature birds have markings on their back and breast, whereas adult males are almost pure white.

“The snowies—you’ll know one when you see one,” Mr. Bottini said.

Mr. Biasetti said as many as four snowy owls had been seen on Dune Road in Hampton Bays around Thanksgiving, and that another was spotted in the Calverton grasslands in mid-December. “Typically, juveniles of all bird species will wander,” Mr. Riepe said. “They really like that open, tundra-like atmosphere.” Snowies have also been seen at former landfills and on rooftops and utility poles.

With lemmings off the menu, in this area the owls will typically pursue other rodents like rabbits and mice, possibly even snagging and tearing apart a seagull, Mr. Giunta said. He said he had seen a snowy owl atop a huge telescope at Point Lookout—“completely exposed on the dome, completely above everything.”

During at least one past irruption, that kind of exposure got snowy owls into trouble—Mr. Bottini noted an incident, recorded in November and December of either 1926 or 1927, in which at least 40 snowy owls were shot on Fisher’s Island alone, with a local taxidermist noting that he had received 36 others from eastern Long Island.

The birds have but a “short window” in summer up north in which to breed, according to Mr. Bottini.

“We just hope that they make it through the winter and make it back north to their breeding grounds next year,” Mr. Riepe said. “We wish them well.”

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