2013-11-28 / Nature

Snowy Owl Makes Surprise Visit

By Jack Kelly

Juvenile Snowy Owl rests on South Shore rocks at Sachuest Point. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Juvenile Snowy Owl rests on South Shore rocks at Sachuest Point. (Photos by Jack Kelly) This past weekend brought another astonishing gift of nature to the wildlife enthusiasts of Newport County. Last Friday, a juvenile Snowy Owl was observed, identified, and photographed in the Island Rocks region of Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Saturday and Sunday witnessed the arrival of scores of bird watchers from the southern New England region hoping to catch a glimpse of this visitor from the tundra of the far north. Braving plunging temperatures and skin-numbing wind chill factors, intrepid trekkers scoured the rocky shoreline of the refuge in search of their quarry.

The owl was sighted numerous times as it rested and hunted prey along the southern coast of Sachuest Point. By Sunday afternoon, hundreds of die-hard birders, as well as casual observers of nature, had made their way through the visitors center at the refuge. Both experienced and novice observers were captivated by the natural beauty, the agile flying skill, and the mere presence of this unique specimen of the avian world.

Juvenile Black-bellied Plover forages on Third Beach. Juvenile Black-bellied Plover forages on Third Beach. While searching for signs of the visiting owl, refuge nature walkers were also treated to sightings of Red-necked Grebes, Horned Grebes, Harlequin Ducks and other waterfowl. One group encountered a very docile female deer, which stood by the side of the trail chewing her cud. Other visitors sighted mink scrambling along the rocky shores or swimming after prey in the waters near Island Rocks.

Sarah Griffith, a U. S. Fish and Wildlife staff member, was ecstatic over the Snowy Owl sighting. “This is a great observation and we hope that the owl will stay in the area for awhile. We hope that folks get a good look at this wonderful creature and appreciate the fact that we don’t often see this species so close to home. However, we know that folks who came to see the owl also observed many other species that call the habitats of Sachuest Point their home.”

Encounter with a docile doe in the “wilds of Middletown”. Encounter with a docile doe in the “wilds of Middletown”. Snowy Owls are large, heavy and powerful diurnal (daytime) predators. They have a body length of 24 inches and a wingspan of 52 inches. Mature males of the species are nearly snowy white, while females and juveniles have bright white facial discs and sooty markings on the wings and breasts. The adult female is slightly larger than the male and can weigh over four pounds. All members of this species have vivid yellow eyes and feather-covered legs. Regardless of its size, this raptor is an agile and skilled flier.

The preferred prey of this species is the Arctic lemming, but it also hunts a variety of waterfowl, including ducks, grebes and loons. It will also take mice, rats, and other small rodents. When it is south of its normal range, it is known to take sea ducks and gulls.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Snowy Owls pair for life and will skip a breeding season if they perceive a lack of prey for their young. The adult birds will also sometimes force their young to move south in search of sustenance. This type of movement is known as an irruption, a large scale species migration outside its normal range, usually in autumn and winter due to the collapse of food sources.

Two years ago, juvenile Snowy Owls were documented in 33 of the lower 48 states due to an unexpected and still unexplained collapse of the Arctic lemming population. At least six juveniles were sighted in the Newport County area during that time.

Rachel Farrell, co-editor of the “Field Notes of Rhode Island Birds” and the editor of “North American Birds of Rhode Island,” said “In the past few days there have been several confirmed sightings of Snowy Owls along the coastal regions of Rhode Island and a larger number of sightings along the north coast of Massachusetts. There have been multiple sightings across southern Canada, as well as numerous reports across New England that may indicate that a potential irruption is under way at this time.”

Historically, the best places to observe Snowy Owls in our local area are at Island Rocks at Sachuest Point refuge, the wetlands behind Third Beach and near Gardiner’s Pond, and among the dunes of Sachuest Beach in Middletown and Beavertail State Park in Jamestown. However, over the past few years Snowy Owls have also been sighted near Newport Harbor, as well as along Ledge Road and Brenton Point State Park in Newport.

On a recent afternoon, one lone juvenile Black-bellied Plover was spotted on the shoreline of Third Beach. This large plover species has a body length of 11.5 inches and a wingspan of 29 inches. Juveniles have an overall gray plumage above, a darker cap, and pale plumage below. All of its plumage variations include white underwings, white tail, a white wing stripe and jet black plumage next to the underwing, or in the “armpit” of the bird.

Black-bellied Plovers nest and breed on dry tundra ridges near water in far, northern Canada and the northern coast of Alaska. The bird winters along the Pacific Coast, Atlantic Coast, and the Gulf Coast, as well as Mexico and Central America. In winter it favors muddy or sandy coastlines, ponds, lakes, wetlands and farm fields. This species has been known to winter over along Rhode Island’s south coast, the northern range of its wintering grounds. The call of the Black-bellied Plover is a rich, sweet, slurred “pleeooohee”, falling then rising in a three component call.

This Thanksgiving weekend offers families and friends an opportunity for discovery and exploration at any of the refuges, sanctuaries, and open green spaces across Aquidneck Island. This time of year allows nature walkers excellent, unobstructed views of wildlife. A walk along the local beaches may bring an encounter with wintering shorebirds such as Sanderlings, Dunlins, Ruddy Turnstones, and others.

Chance encounters with avian wonders such as songbirds, raptors, richly-colored sea ducks and other winged creatures or deer, mink, muskrats and other mammals will enhance and highlight a venture into the “wild places” of the island.

Return to top