Conserve Wildlife Blog

Posts Tagged ‘snowy owl’

Winter Bird Watching in New Jersey

Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

by Sherry Tirgrath, Wildlife Biologist

While many residents of New Jersey prefer to spend winter days indoors and away from the cold, there are those dedicated birdwatchers that view the wintertime as an opportunity to get outside and observe species they normally wouldn’t see during the rest of the year. New Jersey hosts a variety of migratory birds, some escaping the freezing temperatures of their Arctic breeding grounds during the harsh northern winters. There are many species that both breed and winter in the Garden State and are easier to locate and observe while trees are bare.  Located on the Atlantic Flyway, New Jersey is also a prime spot for coastal bird watching during the fall and spring migration, with Cape May being one of the most active bird watching hotspots in the country.

A black-capped chickadee on a snowy day. Photo by Blaine Rothauser.

SNOWstorm at Island Beach State Park

Thursday, February 26th, 2015
Snowy Owls in Seaside Park, New Jersey

By: Guest Blogger Eric Chandler, Wildlife & Nature Photographer


Why do snowy owls from the Arctic migrate to New Jersey? I was determined to photograph these beautiful creatures, as well as research why snowy owls return to Island Beach State Park (IBSP) every year.


The migratory snowy owl population has been spotted all along the coast of New Jersey. Popular hangouts include Sandy Hook, Island Beach State Park, Long Beach Island and even further south as all the Atlantic City. Snowy owls have also been spotted as south as North Carolina.


Unlike other raptors, snowy owls spend the majority of their time sitting, as they hunt for prey from the ground. Their unique ability to rotate their head up to 270 degrees allows them to sit in one spot and scan large land areas for prey. The sand dunes at Island Beach State Park provide owls with an opportunity to scan for prey from a seated position, while elevated. Extreme winds are also present on ISBP; the offshore and onshore winds produce some pretty wicked combinations, which give snowy owls that at home feel.


The only real threat to snowy owls at IBSP is human disturbance. Like all raptors, it is illegal to hunt or trap snowy owls. Even though they aren’t hunted with rifles, they are hunted by photographers, who may step on dunes. I can’t express how many times I’ve watched snowy owls take off due to people getting too close. I’m thankful that they still return instead of finding a new migration home. Occasionally, helicopters fly overhead and the owls just watch them in confusion.


Don’t be fooled by the size of snowy owls; these birds have wingspans up to five feet and reach up to two feet tall. With such great size, snowy owls are able to hunt ducks, geese, and even large waterfowl if need be. Small rodents such as lemmings and hares are their favorite, they consume over 1,600 lemmings a year! IBSP features a wide variety of prey on their local menu such as squirrels, mice and small birds. Unfortunately, in the three seasons I’ve spent studying and photographing snowy owls, I have yet to witness a snowy owl eat. Snowy owls are diurnal, which means they are active during both the day and night. It never clicked in my head, but if you think about it, during many months in the arctic there are 24 hours of sunlight, which explains why they are diurnal. During migrations, they mostly hunt late in the day.


Over the past three seasons of photographing the female snowy owl, I never spotted a male, until this year! To my knowledge, this is the first year the male has been spotted at IBSP. The female is very beautiful, with dark markings throughout her pure white feathers, and bright, cat-like yellow eyes. I could photograph her for days. As I was packing up after photographing the female one afternoon, I saw a massive heard of photographers with their bazooka lenses. They must have spotted something pretty important, so I had to see. Could there be two female snowy owls? Once I arrived, I could not believe my eyes, a pure white snowy owl. Now, I love using the term majestic when it comes to wildlife, it’s a very powerful adjective. This male snowy owl surpasses that adjective for sure. It’s so hard to put into words how beautiful this creature is when seeing it right before your eyes, in order to appreciate its beauty. From his ability to spin his head up to 270 degrees, to seeing him squint his yellow eyes at you. His beauty almost demands to have his photograph taken. The stunning glow of the solid white plumage reflecting off the sunlight was a sight to see. I believe he enjoyed the paparazzi coverage; he wasn’t disturbed at all and sat with us for hours. For weeks after that day, every photographer that I bumped into and had not seen him since.


On an early Sunday morning, after shooting the female owl for three-four hours with about twenty photographers, I decided to venture a little bit and search for the male. If you’re not familiar with Island Beach State Park, it is a narrow, 10-mile barrier island with only one road. It’s very easy to get in the car and drive from parking lot to parking lot, but your chances of missing the wildlife are extremely high (many people also acquire a driving on the beach permit.) For me, I love being out in sub 20 degree temperatures, admiring the peaceful empty beach and watching groups of ocean birds play tag with each other. After four miles of walking, hoping to spot the male owl, all of a sudden this huge white bird starts flying towards me. He literally landed on top of a dune right in front of me! I spent the remainder of my day with him and captured some the best photographs of my career.


Underneath multiple layers with the cold wind blowing in my face on a gorgeous beach without a cloud in the sky, the sun to my back, a prime photography setting, and not a person within miles of my view, this was my sanctuary. If you want to capture the award winning photograph, you must learn patience and be respectful of the wildlife. Don’t chase after wildlife, they will come to you when the time is right. If you didn’t get your opportunity today, you will in the future.


So, now we know why this pair of snowy owls enjoys migrating to Island Beach State Park each year. They have plenty of mammals and birds to prey upon, elevated sand dunes to hunt from with almost no threat from larger predators. A few years ago, there was a eruption of snowy owls that traveled the coastline. Researches said this rare abundance of snowy owls usually occurs every 30-40 years! This was due to a large population of lemmings in the Arctic, prior to migration seasons. I find it very interesting that in Paleolithic caves in France, drawings of snowy owls were created over 40,000 years ago. That makes them the one of the oldest recognizable bird species show in in pre-historical art in the world.


From drawings in a cave, to photographs that I capture, it’s pretty awesome to share the appreciation of snowy owls from thousands of years ago. They are beautiful creatures and I look forward to their return each winter. Snowy owls migrate back to their homes in the tundra in late March, early April. With only a few months left, get out there and search for snowy owls at your local beach, but please be sure to respect the wildlife, and stay off the dunes!


Eric Chandler is a Wildlife & Nature Photographer based in New Jersey.

Eric reports that roughly three-four weeks ago the pair of Snowy Owls mentioned in this post left Island Beach State Park. Recent reports of large amounts of snowy owls in Northern New York have led Eric to believe that the owls are heading back home!


Plush birds help real birds in New Jersey!

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
Ever see an adorable bird in the wild and wanted to take it home with you?

by Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager

A Stuffed Owl hunts a desolate beach.

A Stuffed Owl hunts a desolate beach.

Well now you can!

I feel lucky to have had the chance to see a snowy owl on one of New Jersey’s beaches! It was certainly a once in a lifetime experience! Snowy owls are such an intriguing species that we know so little about. Hopefully scientists will learn more about them by studying their movements during this irruption to protect critical habitat for them, like some of the beaches and other habitat types that they overwintered on here in New Jersey.

Since we all LOVE the snowy owls so much, you can now purchase your very own memento of the irruption this winter! The plush snowy owl that you see above was made right here in the US; designed by talented artists and made by hand by craftsmen and women in Upperstate New York. 20% of the sales of these plush birds goes to Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey to protect REAL birds.

More plush birds are on the way, like ospreys, piping plovers, oystercatchers, and peregrine falcons!

I for one cannot wait to get my hands on a plush osprey!! 🙂

Searching for Snowy Owls

Tuesday, 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.