Last Call for Snowy Owls at Sandy Hook
And there it was. Perched in the same spot it had been pretty much all winter. Resting quietly by a small dried up plant near a piece of beach trash, a sheet of old Styrofoam under its tail feathers. It’s eyes were squinting in the bright sunshine. A gorgeous plump white feathered bird by the edge of the ocean watching the mid-day sun go slowly by.
What a beautiful sight. A Snowy Owl just taking it easy on a snowless day at the beach.
They’re fun to photograph because they stand out and they’re so big. The Snowy Owl is the heaviest owl in North America, with females weighing around five pounds and males weighing roughly four pounds. Their wingspan is up to five feet.
I wasn’t alone either. There were a handful of birders from North Jersey taking pictures as well. We were all enjoying the sight of a Snowy Owl located downstream from New York City, in one of the most urban coastlines in the world.
Snowy Owl sightings caused a flurry of activity this winter, with photographs and a near steady flow of finds. They were the talk of the birding community.
Driven by a search for food, the birds were appearing in large numbers all over Lower New York Bay and beyond, from Floyd Bennett Field and Jamaica Bay in New York City, up the Hudson River Valley in New York State, to Sandy Hook and Sea Bright in New Jersey and down the Jersey Shore to Cape May County. In fact, this was a record year for sightings of Snowy Owls all over the northeast. Some owls were even behaving like snowbirds, travelling as far south as Florida and Bermuda.
It isn’t clear why the owls were arriving in such large numbers. Of course, there are many theories. The most popular has to do with food and high breeding productivity. Some years there is an abundance of food in the Arctic, mostly lemmings, a small rodent, which is a favorite food source of Snowy Owls. Wildlife biologists know that Snowy Owls will abandon a breeding season when lemmings are scarce. When lemmings are abundant the owl may produce a large clutch, up to nine eggs.
As it turns out, last summer was a very good year for lemming populations in northern Quebec. This in turn lead adult Snowy Owls to have a productive breeding season and produce more young. As a result, these immature owls had to travel further south to find food during what turned out to be a very cold and cruel winter season with bouts of the polar vortex moving southward.
Yet, the invasion of Arctic Snowy Owls is about to end. Spring will soon be here. With hopefully warmer days and milder nights, Snowy Owls will start to feel the urge to migrate north back to the Arctic where they belong.
Though maybe not. Many of the Snowy Owls spotted this winter were young birds. Since Snowy Owls don't breed until at least their third year, quite a few of these birds will not attempt to nest this year. Thus, there is no real urge to fly back to the tundra to find a partner and a suitable nesting area. Will any owls try to remain here?
No matter what, the life of a young Snowy Owl is not easy. Not all of the Snowy Owls that came south this winter will survive. Although some owls will live on and perhaps even return in future years. Others will not be able to deal with the stress of migration, the strain of foraging in a busy urban-suburban environment, the hassles from interacting with Ospreys and other coastal wildlife, the possible lack of food, the burden from parasites and poisons meant for rodents, and collisions with planes, cars, and power lines. It’s not an easy time and nature can be cruel.
But for now, we are still rewarded with the sight of at least one Snowy Owl at Sandy Hook. Enjoy this exceptional view while it lasts, because who knows when another Snowy Owl will return.
If you spot a Snowy Owl, please give it plenty of room. While it’s been wonderful that so many people have been able to see Snowy Owls, the best thing people can do is to appreciate them from a distance. If Snowy Owls are frequently disturbed by humans, it prevents them from relaxing during the day and they become too tired to hunt for food. Give the owls some space and let it relax in peace.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/