Even though it has been a couple months since the last school of striped bass moved along the beach, I am still drawn to the shoreline. There might be little to fish for, but the variety of wildlife that can be observed makes the trek in the brutal cold worth the effort. In addition to seals (as I mentioned in last month’s column), we see a wide variety of avian visitors. Many of these birds have traveled great distances from the Canadian tundra in search of open water and thawed ground to find food. Found locally at no other time of year, they will return north well before we awaken from our winter “hibernation.” Over the years, I have frequently observed many of these species, but one has eluded me time and time again, until this winter, that is.
In addition to being “The Fish Guy,” I am a falconer and currently fly a redtailed hawk named Emmy. My love of falconry has made me almost as obsessed with birds of prey as I am with fish. However, one such bird, the snowy owl, has eluded me for many years. Made famous as Harry Potter’s pet owl Hedwig, there is something very majestic about this bird.
North America’s heaviest owl, the snowy owl weighs in at four pounds and stands about two feet tall, with females being larger than males. Coloration will vary greatly between adults and juveniles, as well as between males and females. Mature males will be almost completely white in color, while females will have some dark barring. As juveniles, they will be heavily barred, with immature females being darker than males.
Snowy owls spend their summers in the tundra, far north of the Arctic Circle. In this treeless region, they can be found perched on the ground while scanning the landscape for their preferred prey of lemmings. While most owls are nocturnal, snowy owls experience 24 hours of daylight in the arctic, and in turn are diurnal by nature. A lack of trees also means they must nest on the ground. A females makes a nest by digging a depression in the ground. Once the nest is constructed, she will lay a single clutch of between 3 and 11 eggs. (Clutch size is directly linked to the local lemming population. In years with an abundance of food, it will be easier to supply food to the offspring, and in turn the female will lay a larger clutch of eggs.)
Food abundance also has a great influence on winter migrations. As winter arrives in the tundra, food will become harder to find, forcing the owls to migrate south in search of prey. Additionally, in years with a high success rate of offspring, we will observe owls much farther south than normal as adults chase the young of the year birds away from their established territories.
With an abundance of mice, voles, rabbits and waterfowl, the New England coastline makes for a perfect habitat for these distant travelers. Every winter there will be a report or two of a snowy owl perched atop a dune, scanning the low-lying land for a meal. I started calling these reported owls “ghost owls,” as they were impossible to find. I’d spend hours combing the beach without even a glimpse of one.
This winter, reports of snowy owls not only started much earlier than usual, but there were far more reports than in past years. It appeared there was going to be an irruption of snowy owls this winter. An irruption is when birds migrate further than normal in response to a lack of available food sources. As in past years, after hearing these reports, I headed to the barrier island in hopes of finally spotting my “white whale.”
It was cold; temperatures were only in the 20s, with a stiff northeast wind making conditions even worse. After a short walk down the beach I spotted my first snowy owl. At first, I thought the tears in my eyes from the cold winds were playing tricks on me. After clearing my eyes, there she sat atop the dunes, a juvenile snowy owl. It seemed unbothered by my presence, as its eyes were closed most of the time. It was most likely resting from its last meal, as I could see some blood on the side of its face. Snapping some pictures of this regal bird, I left it to rest and continued my walk down the beach. To my amazement, I found an additional three owls, all within a couple hundred yards of each other. After a few hours observing and picture-taking, I was frozen to the bone and retreated to the warmth of my truck. How these relatively small birds can handle these extreme conditions still boggles my mind.
It will still be several months before we see a return of any fish along the beaches, but that does not mean the beaches are void of life. Bundle in layers, grab a Thermos of coffee and hit the shore in search of our winter’s wildlife before it is gone.
Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center and a member of the Long Island Outdoor Writer’s Association. To see more of Chris’ work, visit fishguyphotos.com