Clellie Lynch: Invasion of the tundra ghosts
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
Three sighted at Biddeford Pool in Maine! Seventeen on Plum Island, Massachusetts! Six at Napeague on the eastern end of Long Island! Four at Cape May, New Jersey! One at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina! One in Bermuda! One at the Pittsfield airport! Since November reports of snowy owl sightings have been, clickety-clack, coming over the birding wires. This is definitely an irruption year of tundra ghosts, those magnificent, huge, snowy owls normally residents of the far north.
Every four years of so, squadrons of these owls migrate into southern Canada and the northern United States, invading wide open spaces, fields, beaches and, unfortunately, airports. In early December, staff at JFK Airport in New York City took to the runways with rifles to kill the owls until the outraged uproar from the birding community convinced them it was better to trap and release, than to slaughter the unsuspecting and blameless birds.
Christmas counts across Massachusetts including the Berkshires recorded snowy owls for the first time in the 114-year history of the count. They're everywhere. Danny and I would love to find one to watch and maybe photograph.
The quest is on! Before Christmas we travel to my mother's on the eastern end of Long Island, New York, where beaches and fields abound and snowy owl reports pile up daily. Amid Christmas shopping at various places, we cruise along the ocean from Water Mill to Montauk, where thousands of scoters float, fly and fling themselves into the bitter wind. Common eider bob along the waves near shore. A small flock of Bonaparte's gulls beat their wings against the wind as they try to head north. But nary a snowy owl is perched on a dune, on driftwood, in a field, on a fence post.
On the trip back, we veer off into Napeague and Acabonac where flat icy fields, marshes and beaches provide perfect hunting territory for snowy owls, but here too there is nary an owl. The next day, we are off to the North Fork, another great area for these owls; wide open fields, vineyards and beaches. Again, not for want of trying, there's not an owl in sight. We make our way home via Dune Road in the Quogue/Hampton Bays area, another excellent owl habitat. Not an owl here either!
The next day, Danny checks the bird reports and snowys are reported in all of the areas we traversed in the last two days. Grrrr! Where were they when we were peering through our binoculars, scanning and scanning every rise, hillock and dune, every scrubby oak and pine?
Snowy owls, Nyctea scandiaca, are big, nearly two-feet tall with a wing span of more than four feet and often stationary when searching for a meal. They are powerful hunters and voracious feeders and they hunt day and night, so are not like other owls hidden in the woods by day and cruising for feasts by night.
The main meal of the snowy is lemmings and other rodents, but when the little mice and voles and larger hares and rabbits are not available, the snowy owl has no qualms about taking birds (grebes, small gulls, grouse, ptarmigan) or fish, or even feasting on foxes and other trapped or dead animals. Ookpikjuaks (Inuit for snowy owl) are hard to miss, but miss them we do!
John James Audubon in 1840 described a snowy owl fishing: "...they invariably lay flat on a rock, with the body placed lengthwise along the border of the (water) hole, the head also laid down, but turned toward the water. One might have supposed the bird sound asleep, as it would remain in the same position until a good opportunity of securing a fish occurred, which I believe was never missed; for, as the latter unwittingly rose to the surface, near the edge, that instant the Owl thrust out the foot, and, with the quickness of lightening, seized the fish and drew it out."
For the next few days we celebrate Christmas with family and friends and the only snowy owls we see are the three distinct owl ornaments hanging from the branches of the Christmas tree amid all the other bird ornaments.
After the holidays, we hear tell of snowy owls at the Albany airport and even though it is in the single digits and very windy we head west. We drive into the area near the end of the runway and scan the pillars, posts and the small piles of snow. Nothing. We stop in the parking lot near the hockey training rink where there is an expansive view of the runways. Nada an owl.
Right up next to a runway, we see a red-tailed hawk atop a pine tree. It flies out and hovers, then pounces. The bird, a rough-legged hawk, stands near the runway and pulls apart a mouse, definitely a mouse as we can see the tail dangling.
We are back where we started and repeat. At long last, just as a jet powers up along the runway, we see two owls, wings huge and broad, fly up and circle around before they swoop away below the horizon of the runway, only to disappear again. A momentary sighting, but a sighting nonetheless. Yay!
Why do these irruptions or invasions occur every four years or so? Ornithologists have posited that this occurs when there is a crash in the lemming population in the far north. Other scientists have stated that since the snowy owls are prolific breeders laying 5-8 eggs (and sometimes more) and raising many young, that the owls create the lack of lemmings when they have a very successful breeding year or two.
Our birder friend, Kathy Mills, just yesterday reported that she had 11 snowy owls along the beaches and in the marshes of Plum Island. The lure of seeing so many in an unobstructed area is great. What could be better than staring into the hypnotic, "Mack-the-Knife" eyes of the White Terror of the North!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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