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Birders celebrate snowy owl invasion
On the beaches of Ocean City and Wildwood Crest, from Smithville to Cape May, and points throughout the northwest, an exotic, brilliantly white bird is being seen with astonishing regularity.
Snowy owls are here, by all reports in extraordinary numbers.
No, Harry Potter isn’t sending a lot of messages. The arctic birds are spreading south this year because of an unusually large number of lemmings being born recently. Lemmings, which despite the image do not stampede en masse off of cliffs, are the primary food source for the owls, so more lemmings meant more owls.
Those owls have expanded their domain, which has meant the birds have been seen as far south as Bermuda. On Sunday, Dec. 15, when the annual Christmas bird count took place in Cape May County, five of the birds were spotted.
According to Pete Dunne with New Jersey Audubon, the last time the Northeast has seen snowy owls in these numbers was in 1921. Before that, it was 1890.
“This is really a very special year. It’s like having a meteor shower,” said Dunne. “This will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.”
Paradoxically, for such an unusual owl, they are one of the easiest to see, especially when there is no snow on the ground and their white color shows easily. Snowy owls are white with some amount of dark patterned markings, ranging from almost none to being more dark than light. Most accounts say younger birds and females tend to have more markings, and Dunne agrees.
They are very large birds, with a wingspan of close to 5 feet, and while many owls are laying low in the daytime, snowy owls are out and about.
“They keep our hours. They hunt in the daylight,” said Dunne. He said they have to, because in the summers in the arctic home, it’s almost always daylight. Also, while most owls hunt by sound, snowy owls hunt by sight. While some stay in the arctic, some birds head south each winter, although most years they don’t go much farther than Canada and a few northern American states.
With no lemmings in New Jersey, the owls here are after mice and other rodents, rabbits, and black ducks.
Even in the arctic, snowy owls are coastal birds, so Dunne said it should not be surprising that many are being seen on beaches in this area.
Those who have seen the birds, either sheltering in some rocks or flying over the beach, say they make a dramatic sight.
“I can make anyone a birdwatcher right now,” Dunne said. He would just need to put a spotting scope on a snowy owl and let the person take a long look. “I guarantee that they will never be the same again.”