Conserve Wildlife Blog

Searching for Snowy Owls

February 11th, 2014

By Charlene Smith, Program Coordinator

On a cold blustery January morning I decided to brave the elements in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Snowy Owl irruption occurring in our area.  Since as early as December, the owls have been showing up all along the east coast hanging out by our beaches as it is similar to the barren habitat that they are accustomed to in the Canadian Arctic. The reason why we are seeing so many snowy owls this year is because of good productivity on their breeding grounds.  There was a huge supply of lemmings this past summer that created an abundance of young. Most likely the owls that we have been seeing are juveniles who don’t have their own territories and have moved south possibly looking for food.

On my 45 minute ride out to Sandy Hook, I keep thinking that I was crazy to be doing this. What are the chances that I could spot this rare owl on a 7 mile stretch of Barrier Island?  The odds were against me but I had a hunch on where to look.  I arrived at Sandy Hook, grabbed my newly purchased Nikon binoculars and my Canon camera and took off in the hopes of finding an owl and catching a few shots.

Snowy Owl at Sandy Hook, one of many owls that are overwintering in New Jersey. (c) Charlene Smith

Snowy Owl at Sandy Hook, one of many owls that are overwintering in New Jersey. (c) Charlene Smith

As I walked along the paved path that runs along the water, I scanned the tops of the buildings for a large white bird.  I noticed a few people gazing up and pointing to something in the distance. I hit the jackpot!  I quickly came upon the group and locked my binoculars to the top of a chimney in absolute amazement and disbelief. There sat perched a beautiful snowy owl with faded barring, its eyes half closed, half open. With every noise it would rotate its head around in the direction of the intruding sound. We patiently waited for the owl to take off in flight and when it decided to move, we gasped in awe. It flew over to some pilings by the water and waddled cautiously up the wooden beams, occasionally starring back at the crowd of onlookers.  It was clearly annoyed by the group watching its every move and in an instant it decided to fly off while the people with their telephoto lens and binoculars followed suit. I was chilled to the bone and couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. As much as I wanted to follow the owl I decided it best to appreciate the wildlife from afar and respect its boundaries. I was grateful for the experience and that I could proudly tout that I saw a snowy owl in New Jersey of all places. This is a once in a lifetime occurrence and I recommend taking the time to find a snow owl, but onlookers beware – Keep your distance and respect the owls boundaries.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is keeping track of snowy owl sightings with their eBird project, a real-time online bird checklist program.  Another interesting site is Project SNOWstorm, a site dedicated to collecting important data regarding this season’s snowy owl irruption. Scientists are affixing solar-powered GPS transmitters to snowy owls, which records the owls’ location every 30 minutes via cell phone towers.  Almost nothing is known about the local and landscape-level movements of snowy owls on their wintering grounds, nor about their nocturnal hunting activity and range size so information from these transmitters will help to discover more about their habits and habitats.

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One Response to “Searching for Snowy Owls”


    Very nice blog Charlene!

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