2014-02-14 / Nature

Snowy Owls’ Appearance Continues to Delight Birders

By Jack Kelly

During the winter months as many as four juvenile Snowy Owls have taken up residence at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, and thousands of bird enthusiasts have enjoyed the opportunity to see these large, agile, and diurnal (daytime) raptors. Shannon Griffith, who sits on the board of directors of the Friends of the National Wildlife Refuges of Rhode Island, recently presented an informative classroom session on these winged guests from the north, coupled with a guided owl tour along the trails of the refuge.

The 20-minute educational program, which explained the basics of Snowy Owl physiology and biology, was well received by the standing-room-only crowd. Griffith described the behaviors, life cycle, and curious movements of these seldom-seen visitors from the Arctic. “Possessing an average wingspan of close to five feet and an average body weight of over four pounds, these birds-of-prey are among the largest owls in North America. Body weight can differ with age. The owls’ preferred prey is the lemming, a small rodent found across the Arctic, but when out of its normal range it will hunt other prey, such as mice, rats, voles, ducks, grebes and gulls,” Griffith explained. He then held up an owl pellet. “These pellets, regurgitated by the owls, contain indigestible bones, fur, feathers and other items that the birds expel. They will form within six to ten hours of an owl’s meal.”


This mature Bald Eagle was observed eating at Newport’s Easton’s Beach on Wednesday morning, Feb. 12. Bald Eagles subsist mainly on a diet of fish, but also hunt gulls and waterfowl. As scavengers, they also look for carrion and may steal the meals of other animals. This eagle was chased from the beach by an unleashed dog. Dog owners should be aware that harassing, disturbing, injuring or killing a Bald Eagle carries stiff fines and potential federal incarceration. (Photo by Rey Larsen) This mature Bald Eagle was observed eating at Newport’s Easton’s Beach on Wednesday morning, Feb. 12. Bald Eagles subsist mainly on a diet of fish, but also hunt gulls and waterfowl. As scavengers, they also look for carrion and may steal the meals of other animals. This eagle was chased from the beach by an unleashed dog. Dog owners should be aware that harassing, disturbing, injuring or killing a Bald Eagle carries stiff fines and potential federal incarceration. (Photo by Rey Larsen) Griffith addressed the record irruption of juvenile Snowy Owls being observed along the Eastern Seaboard. “According to biologists and ornithologists, a combination of factors seems to have caused the largest non-migratory movement of this species in at least 40 years. It is believed that there has been a collapse of the Arctic lemming population in the eastern Arctic and northern Canada, as well as overbreeding on the part of the owls. The mature owls force their young south in search of prey when these situations arise. The birds have been recorded as far west as Kentucky and as far south as North Carolina. One juvenile even made its way to Bermuda.”


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. As the classroom presentation ended, the crowd moved outside into the foggy morning, where other bird watchers joined the group in the drizzle. However, the weather did not dampen the high hopes and expectations of the participants. After a quick briefing on trail boundary etiquette and the need for quiet respect for all the refuge’s wildlife, Griffith began the walk. The large but mostly-silent crowd slowly made their way south along the Ocean Loop Trail and were rewarded almost immediately with the sighting of a juvenile Snowy Owl, resting on a grassy ridge about 100 yards east of the pathway. Its bright white face and sooty, dark markings were easily visible to the onlookers. As cameras clicked and binoculars were shared for better views, participants were surprised at the owl’s size and color. This was the prize that many in the crowd had hoped for.

As the tour moved on, the weather began to clear and a number of sea duck species and other waterfowl made appearances. Among the breeds viewed were Common Eiders, Black Scoters, Common Goldeneyes, Harlequin Ducks, Horned Grebes, Common Loons, a Red-throated Loon, Bufflehead Ducks, and American Black Ducks. A small flock of Purple Sandpipers, also winter residents of the refuge, were sighted in algae exposed by the low tide, actively foraging for invertebrate prey.

Griffith pointed out that the Harlequin Duck is the mascot of the Friends of the National Wildlife Refuges and winters in the waters of Sachuest Point and other coastal regions of the state. The average Harlequin Duck is 16 inches long with a wingspan of 26 inches. The adult male is a “must see” duck for North American birders. It has intricate patterns of cinnamon and cobalt blue, set off by blackbordered white­stripes on its head and breast, with a white spot at the ear. Each male is a carbon copy of the next, striking in beauty. The females’ colors are muted in tones of dark brown. The female has white cheek coloring and a round white spot behind the ear. Both sexes have small bills, bulbous heads, thick necks, and long tails. The species nests along fast flowing rivers in Northeastern Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Harlequins can be found foraging for small fish, crustaceans, and shellfish around rocky areas and headlands on ocean coasts in winter.

A doe and her yearling eyed the tour group from the scrub brush and a Harrier Hawk combed a nearby field for a meal. A number of small songbirds such as Carolina Wrens, Song Sparrows, Whitethroated Sparrows and finches were calling from the woods. Robins were foraging for seeds and berries in the thickets and a Redtailed Hawk made a brief flyover.

As if on cue, two resting juvenile Snowy Owls were seen toward the end of the tour in the marshes adjacent to Third Beach. The crowd respected the boundaries of the refuge but took some photographs before quietly leaving the owls to their downtime.

This was the first observance of Snowy Owls by many on the tour. One couple from Massachusetts, who gave their names as Joe and Rita, were ecstatic at seeing three separate owls and photographing two of them. “We’ll be the hit of our bird watching club for a while. I can’t wait to show these pictures,” Rita said.

The Snowy Owls will slowly begin their long trip back to the Arctic in the next two to three weeks; until then, they will continue to delight visitors at the refuge. For more information, call 401-847-5511.

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