Viewing Snowy Owls

snowy owl alert and disturbed

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.

"Snowies" typically arrive in Massachusetts around November and then head back north to their Arctic breeding ground in April.

How to Safely Observe Snowy Owls

When Snowy Owls are in Massachusetts, they are primarily nocturnal like other owl species and mostly roost during the daytime to conserve energy.

Groups of observers can keep Snowy Owls from resting, and some birds are forced to fly and relocate repeatedly if multiple photographers or birders approach them. Protecting birds means giving them the space they need while roosting and hunting so they can hopefully make it back to the Arctic to breed, giving future generations of wildlife watchers the opportunity to enjoy these magnificent creatures as well.

→ When observing an owl from the road, from a frequently traveled path, or a beach, try to stay at least 50 yards (150 feet) away. That’s about half of a football field, or five school buses stacked end-to-end.

→ When viewing an owl with a group of people, view from one location and never surround or attempt to approach the owl to get a better view or photograph. 

Always watch the Snowy Owl’s behavior: if the bird becomes alert, extends its neck upright, and eyes become wide open, you have disturbed it from its roosting mode and you should back off immediately.

Norman Smith with a Snowy Owl in front of a Viewing Snowy Owl Guidelines sign
Norman Smith

Number of Snowy Owls

The number of snowies that appear each season varies from year to year. They are considered an irruptive species—one that responds to changes in the conditions of 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 serve as the owl's primary food in the Arctic were in short supply, thus forcing the starving birds to move south in search of food.

But Norman Smith, former Sanctuary Director of Blue Hills Trailside Museum and the leader of Mass Audubon’s Snowy Owl Project, says that we actually see the most snowies in New England after an Arctic lemming population boom (not bust). High lemming populations mean improved breeding success for the owls, and irruptions typically consist mostly of hatch-year birds that were born the same year.

Threats to Snowy Owls

Most of the owls that are in Massachusetts during the winter are young, inexperienced, and face many challenges. They have to master the skill of hunting and evading predators; avoid being hit by vehicles or getting electrocuted; fend off disease and rodenticide poison; and deal with being disturbed by people while roosting and hunting. Read more >

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 sighting areas include Westport, New Bedford, Nantucket, Orleans, Duxbury Beach, Salisbury State Park, and 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 be a Snowy Owl!

Watch Snowy Owls in the Arctic has a live feed of a Snowy Owl nest in the Arctic. Watch it live >