Our invasion of Snowy Owls in the Northeast continues. Snowies are being found up and down the Atlantic seaboard with large numbers in places like coastal Massachusetts and New Jersey, where I saw four while visiting family over the holidays. In the past week in our region alone a Snowy Owl was found along Moffit Road in Plattsburgh, at least one and perhaps two Snowies in the fields around Westport, another Snowy in Massena, one on Crown Point, and two on Cumberland Head. They have recently been found hunting in the fields near Malone and as I wrote earlier this week, they are being found in large numbers on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain as well.
Not only that, but Snowy numbers continue to be high in places to our north like Ontario and Newfoundland which likely means more will continue to move south into and through our region as the winter progresses and we reach our cold January temperatures. As I wrote for lakeplacid.com a month ago, there have even been Snowy sightings in North Carolina and Bermuda! Snowies are everywhere.
Not only is it fun to see them, but we are continuing to learn about their movements as birds fitted with radio transmitters move up and down the east coast. While not a sea bird, some Snowies are covering great distances over water as they move from eastern Quebec and the Canadian Maritimes south. There are also owls heading out to sea each day where they appear to be hunting ducks and gulls from offshore buoys and channel markers. While such expanses of water could be deadly impediments to the owls, many of them appear capable of negotiating such hazards.
Birds of the tundra, the owls are most likely to be found hunting in open areas like fields and beaches, which is also why they frequent airports. Excellent mousers, they can catch better than 1,600 lemmings in the arctic in a single year! And their hunting ability appears to be the reason why they are coming south in such large numbers. The clutch sizes and nesting success of Snowy Owls varies widely with available food from year to year and this summer was a banner year for lemmings in the eastern arctic. In such years the owls can lay more than 10 eggs and many of those young will survive with a large glut of food within the reach of their parents’ talons. With all those young birds fledged and winter upon us, there isn’t enough food to feed them and they must move south to find it.
And the Snowies are not the only northern owls moving this year. There have also been a few reports of Northern Hawk Owls to our north and one was discovered in Waterbury Center, Vermont a few weeks ago. I drove over on Christmas Eve to see the Hawk Owl hunting in a small brushy field. After all, since both Snowy Owls and Northern Hawk Owls are generally diurnal, they are both fun owls to observe. This movement of owls has spawned hope among local birders of finding a Northern Hawk Owl on the New York State side of Lake Champlain, but so far one hasn’t been found. But we’ll continue to be out looking for them. After all, the excitement about the owls is a great way to start off a New Year of birding!