Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Look out for snowy owls arrival



Although a rare winter visitor, the snowy owl does occasionally visit Western Massachusetts, occurring in Pittsfield, for instance, almost always in the center of the city. Arriving early this month and leaving by mid-March, it most often perched on rooftops. I always thought it was for the easy meals — the many pigeons downtown.

From National Audubon Society's website, Scott Weidensaul, one of the directors of Project SNOWstorm, says the clues point to a big irruption [of snowy owls], but the group also fully admits there's no way to definitively know how big it could be or if it will even happen at all. For one, some snowy owls already seem to be retracing the last irruption's process. Data are sketchy and variable, but it appears that big southward movements occur about once every four years. That's because lemmings, their preferred prey, go through regional population explosions at about the same interval.

Usually, we most often hear of more snowy owls arriving to our east on Plum Island, north of Cape Ann, and Logan Airport, Boston, with the largest concentration of snowy owls in the Northeast. To them, the land around Boston Logan International Airport and on Plum Island resembles their Arctic home, low and flat, with low-growing plants and grasses. An abundance of small mammals and birds to eat is the main attraction.

In Vermont, at this writing, snowy owls have already been reported this fall at Colchester Railroad Causeway, Delta Park (Chittendon), Waterfront Park (Lake Champlain, Burlington), VTC Campus (Randolph Center) among others.

Massachusetts arrivals include Crane Beach (Ipswich), Parker River NWR (Plum Island) Plumb Island scattered reports, Norton Point (Dikes), Gooseberry Point (Bristol), Logan Airport (Boston), Dartmouth (Bristol), Coskata Marsh (Nantucket).

Q: I waterfowl hunt on the Cheshire Lakes chain. I see many grebes. They seem to spend a lot of time under water. What happens when the small ponds and lakes freeze over at night. Does the grebe sense this and leave for more open waters?

— Nick W.

A: It is not unheard of for a variety of waterfowl to die by freezing. And there have been reports of grebes being rescued in early, but extreme winter weather. Grebes are small to medium-large diving ducks with lobed toes that help make them excellent swimmers and divers. They feed mostly on fish and crustaceans to freshwater insects. The more common pied-billed grebe occasionally nests in the region. Those that stop here during spring migration may arrive with open water in March or April into May and September, with individuals seen until ice-in. There have been a few winter records.Two other grebes may be listed as uncommon migrants, with the horned grebe and the red-neck grebe seen here in mid-October through ice-in. There are records of both being found alive during extremely cold periods and rescued. On Jan. 20, 1994, 11 were rescued in Pittsfield and later released on the coast.

Other summer or year-round ducks seen here in the autumn usually leave ponds and lakes by ice-in, often relocating in nearby rivers. Those that mistakenly sleep in open water on a lake that has mostly frozen over, may well perish. Weakness from lack of food may contribute; they become stranded. Many ducks cannot fly without enough open water to allow for takeoff. Years ago, while walking around Pikes Pond at Pleasant Valley Sanctuary in Lenox, I spotted a mallard duck in the ice, appearing lifeless. It was frozen in the ice. I cannot recall how I removed it, but most likely by getting a hatchet and snowshoes from the barn and carefully chopping the ice from around this male bird. (I was working at the sanctuary part-time). I warmed it up, but to no avail, so I took it home to practice taxidermy on it.

If you search "ducks frozen on a pond," you will see several videos relating to the subject.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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