-Snowy Owl Irruption 2013-
As of December 2013, the Eastern United States is undergoing an exciting and rare irruption of snowy owls. The number of individual owls as well as the wide area that they are dispersed in is fantastic for birders and photographers alike. Before I get into my personal experience covering the owls this year, let me first discuss the background of the entire situation.
Snowy owls come from the far north in places like the Canadian Tundra and up through the Arctic Circle. Every few years or so and for varying reasons the owls venture south in the winter. Because it does not occur every year, this phenomenon is called an irruption rather than a true migration. Speculation puts the cause of these irruptions on two main factors. One reason that the owls fly south is when there is a shortage of their usual prey which is lemmings. A food shortage would cause them to venture out in desperation and to also hunt a wider range of prey species. The second most discussed reason is quite the opposite. Some believe that an irruption like the one that we are currently experiencing could be caused by an overabundance of prey which makes an overabundance of snowy owls. It could be that so many owls made it to adulthood that they were pushed in great numbers out of their usual wintering range. Whatever the reasoning, 2013 is proving to be exceptional for sightings of these beautiful birds!
Snowy Owl at Forsythe NWR
My own personal experience with owls this year has led me cruising the coastlines in search of snowy owls on the beach. Living in Pennsylvania, I headed out to New Jersey to check the marshes and open sandy beaches. My heart was in search of an owl on a sand dune with a spike of grass for texture. Reports were flying in from all up and down the coast, sightings of owls in the sand. I spent an entire morning scouring the shore and miles of dunes at Sandy Hook, a great birding spot, but to no avail. My next favorite New Jersey birding hot spot down the line is Barnegat and then Island Beach State Park. While on my way to Barnegat, I got an alert that an owl was spotted even farther south at the Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Forsythe being another favorite of mine, I knew that I would be passing up the sandy dune photograph that I wanted so badly in favor of a sure clear view of an owl. Less than two hours drive later and I was set up at the owl.
Snowy owls are just gorgeous to behold. A fun fact is that the male snowys are mostly white whereas the females have much more pronounced markings on them. Juvenile birds also have a greater number of darker markings. Knowing this, I was able to identify the Forsythe owl as a young female snowy even as I was walking up
I stayed and photographed the snowy owl until there was not a drop of light left.
Snowy Owl at Forsythe NWR
More searching and a week later brought an entirely different situation. Snow! While I originally had my heart set on a sandy dune photo of a snowy owl, I could not pass up looking for one farther inland when a sudden snowstorm blanketed the area in fresh powder. A great lead about an owl not 30 minutes from home led me out to a snow covered cornfield. These birds were truly having a spectacular irruption to be so far and wide! I spent most of the day in the snow freezing and watching the owl sit and squint as they do. Wildlife photography is seldom if ever glamorous. (Ask me some time about the fire ants in the swamp or the eyeglass cracking cold of the far north. But I digress.) Thank goodness for my electric gloves and super thick winter boots. I could never be a snowy owl. After hours of waiting, camera in hand, the snowy owl took off low over the field after a small flock of doves. Happy times for the patient photographer!
I will still be out photographing snowy owls for the duration of the irruption. For now at least I am very thankful and pleased to have captured this image:
Pennsylvania Snowy Owl in Flight
For those interested in seeing one of these wild snowy owls in person, I highly recommend checking the Forsythe NWR as it is still the most likely spot that you will find one. As with any wild animal, finding one can be difficult and you increase your chances by going to a place like this. The refuge is set up really nice. You actually drive through the marsh on Wildlife Road which is raised so that you do not even have to walk the miles and miles through muck or sand you would elsewhere!
To find out more about the refuge click here: Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
To track sightings of the snowy owls across the Northeast check out this site which lists reports: NemesisBird.com
To learn more about photographing owls check out my: Tips and Techniques for Photographing Birds in Flight
Thanks for reading! Good luck out there photographer friends!