Have you seen the snowy owls on Duxbury Beach? So many people have been talking about them, I’m starting to feel like I’m the only person who hasn’t gone to see them! This winter we have had an unusually high population of snowy owls in our area, so your chances of spotting one are pretty good.
As you may have guessed from their name, snowy owls are primarily white in color, although they do have some brown spots or markings. The males tend to be whiter than the females. They have small golden eyes, and short sharp bills. One of the larger owl species in North America, they measure up to 27 inches in height, and weigh up to four pounds. That’s heavy for an owl – they need lots of layers of feathers to keep warm in the Artic! Their wingspan ranges an impressive 4.5 to 5.5 feet across. In the wild, snowy owls may survive up to nine years – and considerably longer in captivity.
Snowy owls survive primarily on a diet of lemmings, a small Arctic-dwelling mammal. They are nomadic, and generally follow the lemming population. They also eat fish, insects, birds (ranging in size from a songbird to a medium-sized goose!) and other small mammals such as hares and mice. Last year the lemming population was large, and as a result, a greater-than-usual number of young snowy owls were produced.
Snowy owls make their home in the Arctic, in the northern portions of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia. They breed in May, scraping out a hole in the bare ground in which to nest, and often returning to same spot year after year. If food supplies are good, a female may lay 7-11 eggs, while on a not-so-good sustenance year, maybe 3-5. The female protects the nest while the male gathers food. The babies begin to leave the nest after 25-26 days, however they cannot hunt for themselves until they reach about five weeks of age, and their flying skills don’t really mature for another 2-3 weeks beyond that.
In the fall, snowy owls begin their journey south, searching for a place to spend the winter —a place that is similar to the dunes and grasslands of the Artic tundra. They prefer wide-open, mostly-treeless coastal areas, so our larger, less-developed beaches are prime spots for viewing them. Duxbury Beach is the best spot locally. If you don’t mind traveling farther, Plum Island, Salisbury Beach and Newburyport to the north are also safe bets, as are the beaches of the Cape and Islands. They are also attracted to airports.
You probably won’t see snowy owls at Logan or any of our other local airports, though. Owls pose an airstrike danger, and so they are routinely removed from the premises. Norman Smith, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum is a hero in this department. For 32 years he has been rescuing and banding snowy owls from Logan Airport, and relocating them to Duxbury Beach and Plum Island. In a normal year, this may involve 6-10 birds, but occasionally there are boom years and the 2013-2014 winter is definitely a boom (the technical term is “irruption”). By the end of December, Smith had relocated 32 snowy owls to Duxbury alone.
Snowy owls typically arrive in Massachusetts toward the end of November, and stick around for a couple of months, before heading north again. The Bay State isn’t their only winter home: they have been spotted as far south as Bermuda, North Carolina and Florida.
While they are here, snowy owls spend their days hunting. They have remarkably keen vision and hearing. Most owls hunt at night, but snowys do most of their work during the day. They look for a spot with a good view: the rolling terrain of a sand dune is ideal, or they may tuck in behind a bush if it’s windy. On calm days, they might choose a less-protected perch, such as a telephone pole or a nesting platform. Generally they are quiet, unless they’re trying to scare away a predator, in which case they may cackle. They sit a lot – often for hours in the same spot, swiveling their heads or leaning forward to get a good look at something. Often, once they’ve captured one, they will swallow a rodent whole! Now that’s something I’d like to see . . .
There’s still time to try to see the snowy owls at Duxbury Beach. While you may want a spotting scope or binoculars for a close-up view, you won’t need any special device simply to catch a glimpse. Please be respectful. MassAudubon suggests that people not disturb the owls by getting too close.
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com