Snowy Owl Invasion

by Todd McLeish

Photo: Carlos Pedro

Photo: Carlos Pedro

Snowy owls aren’t often found in significant numbers in Rhode Island. They usually spend all year in the Arctic feeding on lemmings on the tundra. But occasionally, when the lemming population crashes or the owl population spikes, many of the large white birds migrate south in winter in search of food. This is one of those years.

Throughout the Midwest and Northeast, snowy owls have been showing up this winter in numbers not seen in decades. Most often, they are found on beaches, farm fields, and airports, which mimic their tundra homes, where they search for mice and voles. In Rhode Island, the owls are being seen regularly since late November at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown and at Misquamicut and Moonstone beaches in South County. Others have been sighted in Jamestown, Warwick, Providence and elsewhere, including locations along Route 95. Several injured birds have also been found and are being rehabilitated. No one knows how many individual snowy owls are in the state this winter, but it is likely to be at least a half dozen, and probably more. For several days this month, three were spotted perched together on a rock at Sachuest.

Unlike so many other rare birds that occasionally visit our area, snowy owls are easy to identify. As former RINHS President Peter Paton told Rhode Island Public Radio recently, “It’s a majestic species. They stand over two feet tall and they have a four foot wingspan. So they’re an exciting species to see for us.” Weighing in at about six pounds, snowy owls are the heaviest owl species in North America. And their white plumage makes them unmistakable in our area. Adult males may be pure white, the perfect camouflage for a bird that spends much of its life in a snowy environment. Younger birds are much more visible, with contrasting gray barring on their white bellies and wings that make them stand out as they perch on fence posts, beaches and snow-covered fields.

If you decide to go in search of one of the snowy owls in the area, bring along binoculars or a spotting scope. The birds can be skittish and may fly off if you get too close. And stay quiet and don’t make sudden movements that may frighten them. The owls are already rather stressed after their long migration and their efforts to find food in unfamiliar places, so we don’t want to add to their stress.

If you’ve never seen a snowy owl before, now is the time to make the effort. You may never have a better chance.

This entry was posted in Animals, Conservation, News. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *