Viewing Snowy Owls

Snowy owl at Joppa Flats © David Larson, Mass Audubon
Snowy owl at Joppa Flats © David Larson, Mass Audubon
 

With a striking white exterior accented by dark markings and a wingspan that can measure close to five feet, the snowy owl is often sought out by winter birders. The birds typically arrive in Massachusetts around November and head back north to their Arctic breeding ground in April.

Number of Snowy Owls

How many snowy owls that will appear each season varies. They are considered an “irruptive” species—one that responds to changes in the conditions on its home territory by moving elsewhere in search of food. Some of the factors that may trigger these irruptions include variations in food supply in the Arctic, severe snow and ice cover in their usual wintering areas, or a superabundance of owls resulting from an exceptional nesting season prior to a southward irruption.

For many years it was assumed that snowy owl irruptions only occurred in years when the lemmings that comprise the snowy owls’ primary food in the Arctic were in short supply, thus forcing the starving owls to move south in search of food.

However, Norman Smith, sanctuary director of Blue Hills Trailside Museum and lead of Mass Audubon’s Snowy Owl Project says that we actually see the most snowy owls in New England after an Arctic lemming population boom, not bust. High lemming populations improve breeding success, and irruptions typically consist mostly of hatch-year birds (ones born this year).

Where to See Snowy Owls

Snowy owls arriving in Massachusetts tend to seek local habitats that mimic the Arctic tundra where they spend most of their lives, such as large salt marshes, extensive agricultural fields, and even airports. Popular sightings include Westport, New Bedford, Nantucket, Orleans, Duxbury Beach, and of course, Plum Island.

They also occasionally wander inland. If you are passing a large open field this winter, that white spot in the distance might only be an errant piece of plastic, but it could also be a snowy owl!

How to Safely Observe Snowy Owls

Winter conditions put a great strain on birds. Even an arctic bird like a snowy owl feels the strain of our winter. Birds must balance conserving their energy (fat) with the need to hunt, or chase intruders, or escape from predators. Each of these activities is “expensive” to a bird, and approaching too closely can harass them.

Protecting birds means giving them the space they need to act naturally with their environment—not to add to their stress. To practice good birding ethics, and also stay within the bounds of the law, it important to stay a good distance away from any bird, even if you want a better photograph.

An automobile makes an excellent blind, so watch from your car if possible. If this isn’t practical, resist the temptation to get a closer look, and enjoy this beautiful bird from a distance.