I had a few vacation days to take with no real plans, so I went to look for ducks.
The wonderful thing about looking for the abundance of waterfowl that spend the winter in our area is that you never know what else you will find. My first vacation venture was to Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, a favorite place for people and ducks alike, but what did I see first? Standing out on Island Rocks off the eastern side of the refuge was a beautiful snowy owl.
There is no mistaking a snowy owl up close; it’s 2-feet tall, with white feathers and piercing yellow eyes. At a distance, you may think that white blob in the brown landscape is something else altogether. One year, while doing a Christmas bird count at Napatree Point with my good friend and birding mentor, Clay Taylor, I spotted a white plastic shopping bag on the dunes and began my habitual rant about pollution. Taylor laughed and said “You might want to look at your plastic bag through the scope.” Sure enough, it was a snowy owl. You can bet I now take a second look at every white blob I spot during the winter months.
Snowy owls nest on the arctic tundra, but almost every year a few will show up in Rhode Island during the winter, usually in places that resemble the wide-open spaces of their arctic habitat; airports, sand dunes, coastlines and fields. Some years, large numbers will make their way south, a migration that is called an “irruption.” The reasons for these irruptions are not fully understood, but they seem to be linked to the availability of food during the previous breeding season.
Ironically, it is not a lack of food that is linked to irruptions, but an over-abundance of their primary prey, which includes voles, lemmings and ptarmigan. When there is a lot of food, snowy owls will have more young, laying up to 11 eggs. If most of these young owls fledge from the nest, that’s a lot of owls competing for food resources during the frigid arctic winter, so many of them migrate further south.
While not all young birds of prey make it through their first winter, most of the snowy owls that show up are perfectly healthy birds that are able to take full advantage of the food sources available here. There are no lemmings in our area, but there are plenty of voles, rabbits, songbirds, weasels and waterfowl. And like all owls, the snowy has excellent eyesight and hearing for finding prey, silent flight for sneaking up on it and powerful talons for catching.
During the artic breeding season, the sun shines 24 hours a day, so most of the snowy owls that show up in Rhode Island will hunt during the day. I once saw a snowy at Sachuest Point that, at first glance, looked injured because he had blood all over his face, but then I realized he was just enjoying a fine feast of rabbit.
Snowy owls come from a place with few trees and fewer people, so when they are in our area, they tend to spend a lot of time sitting on the ground and don’t always fly away when approached. They are also strikingly beautiful, with the adult males almost pure white and the females and immatures having varying degrees of dark markings on their white plumage. Even folks who are not that nature-oriented will stop to take photos and admire the grandeur of these large birds of prey. In fact, their distinct presence creates a dilemma between admiring and photographing these glorious creatures and leaving them be to go about their business of survival.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that manages Sachuest Point requests that people never approach an owl, and instead observe it from at least 200 feet away to give it the space it needs to feel safe. An owl may not move from its location when stressed, so if you notice it panting, staring directly at you or shifting its posture, it’s best to move on.
My general rule of thumb when I come across an exciting bird or other creature is to put the health and safety of the animal first and my personal interests second. This can be a really hard thing to do, but humans take up a lot of space on this planet, so if you are fortunate to come across a beautiful snowy owl or other amazing wild creature, please keep its best interests in mind.