“who whoo WHOOH…”
I will never forget the first Snowy owl I ever saw… I was living in Andover, Maine when a huge white bird appeared in January and soared over the lower fields. It was a very cold winter in 1993 and a pair of these birds became part of my winter bird watching. Their courtship call is quite distinct – three hoots with the loudest whooh at the end. I heard other sounds too but don’t remember the details. When I got my first close up look at one of these magnificent owls I was stunned by their beauty – intense yellow eyes, a black beak and oh, all those pearl white feathers. One had mole brown bars. The Snowy is one of the largest species of owl in North America, and is on average the heaviest owl species. The adult male is virtually pure white, but females and young birds have some dark spots; the young are heavily barred. I believe it was an adult male that I saw at close range. Occasionally one would fly ahead of the car as I drove out of my solitary mile long driveway, a behavior that intrigued me…
Well, Snowy owls are back in Maine! At the Portland Jetport, as many folks know, these owls and those that love seeing them are causing a “problem.” The owls are just trying to make a living but humans are apparently blocking emergency exits.
Many of us will recall that there was a boom in the Snowy population starting around 2011. One owl could be seen perched on a telephone pole between Bryant Pond and South Paris for much of the winter. Recently these birds are becoming uncommonly common! They have popped up in Aroostook County, the mountains of Acadia in Maine, and have been seen as far south as Florida and Hawaii and this year Snowy has made it as far south as New Mexico!
The Snowy owl is typically found in the northern circumpolar region, where it makes its summer home. However, this species is also nomadic because lemming population fluctuations force it to relocate to find food. Recently we have learned that the Snowy has been known to breed at more southerly latitudes
Snowy owls “normally” (is there such a thing today) nest in the tundra of Northern Canada and Europe. Snowy owls are attracted to open areas like marshes, open fields, coastal dunes, and prairies that appear somewhat similar to tundra. During the years when they are found in the Northeastern US, juveniles frequent appear in developed areas so keep your eyes out for a sighting. All ages spend a fair amount of their time over water in the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean, mostly on ice floes.
When perched Snowy owls often face the sun; Snowy owls appear to orient themselves into the sun or wind depending on prevailing weather conditions. No doubt they are happy to bask in whatever source of heat comes their way.
This species of owl nests on the ground, building a scrape on top of a mound or boulder. A site with good visibility is chosen, such as the top of a mound with ready access to hunting areas and a lack of snow. Abandoned eagle’s nests and even gravel bars are used for nesting. The female scrapes a small hollow before laying the eggs. Breeding occurs in May to June, and depending on the amount of prey available, clutch sizes range from 3 to 11 eggs, which are laid singly, approximately every other day over the course of several days. Hatching takes place approximately five weeks after laying, and the pure white young are cared for by both parents. Although the young hatch asynchronously, with the largest in the brood sometimes 10 to 15 times as heavy as the smallest, there is little sibling conflict, a fact that I find fascinating and somewhat unusual. Both the male and the female defend the nest and their young from predators sometimes using distraction as a ruse. Males also defend the nest by standing guard nearby while the female incubates the eggs and broods the young. Both sexes will attack approaching predators, dive-bombing them!
As previously mentioned this powerful bird relies primarily on lemmings and other small rodents for food during the breeding season. They are opportunistic hunters and prey species may vary considerably, especially in winter. Some of the larger mammal prey includes rabbits, hares muskrats squirrels (we could use lots of these birds) raccoons moles and mice. Birds preyed upon include ptarmigan, ducks geese shorebirds and songbirds as well as other owls and raptors. Most of the owls’ hunting is done in the “sit and wait” style; prey may be captured on the ground or in the air; fish may be snatched off the surface of bodies of water using sharp talons. Unlike most owls that hunt at night Snowy owls are diurnal hunting in darkness and in light.
Snowy owls, like other carnivorous birds, swallow their small prey whole. Strong stomach juices digest the flesh, while the indigestible bones, teeth, fur, and feathers are compacted into oval pellets that the bird regurgitates 18 to 24 hours after feeding. Regurgitation often takes place at regular perches, where dozens of pellets may be found.
Previous population estimates of about 200,000 individuals are now regarded as substantially overestimated, and a total population size of 28,000 individuals is probable.
Catastrophic Climate Change guarantees that unless we radically reverse carbon emissions in the next twelve years Life as we know it will be over. The absence of Snowy will become just one more statistic on a planet that has lost its animal populations. So, if you are fortunate enough to glimpse one of these magnificent owls, remember to say goodbye.