A rare influx of Arctic owls last winter was an education bonanza

By Jane Scott  |  Photograph by Tony Pratt
From the Holiday 2014 issue

snowyowls Snowy Days - Delaware Beach LifeLast winter, we on the Delaware coast were treated to an unusual sight: a historic invasion of snowy owls from the Arctic. According to Bill Stewart, director of Conservation and Community for the American Birding Association, the influx began north of us the week before Thanksgiving, when 380 owls were suddenly spotted on Cape Cod. It simply grew from there, spreading down the East Coast with outliers as far south as Florida and as far east as Bermuda.

Snowy owls are the largest owls in North America. The males, with the exception of some spots or bars of bluish gray, are almost pure white. The females are considerably larger and are usually more heavily barred. These are birds of the treeless tundra, so perhaps it was not surprising that they gravitated toward Delmarva’s farm fields and sand dunes. They also liked airports. In fact, Stewart has a video of an airport shot from above that, from an owl’s point of view, bears a surprising resemblance to a tundra laced by rivers. 

Unlike most owls, the snowy is diurnal. That is, it feeds in the daytime as well as at night (not surprising, when you consider that during an Arctic summer there is no real darkness, and in winter there is little daylight). This made them easy to find as they were often out in the daytime, sitting in a field or on a dune. Too easy, in fact: Apparently they were sometimes subjected to a good deal of harassment by an overzealous public, who pursued them with cameras (and even with vehicles).

What caused this surprising visit from the north? The normal range of the snowy owl is circumpolar, limited to the Arctic region at the top of the world, where they feed on lemmings (up to five a day) and hang around holes in the pack ice looking for sea birds. While they often move into Canada and the northern U.S. in winter, last year was an aberration, both in the numbers of birds and the distances they traveled, an occurrence unlikely to be repeated for some time.

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