Bird Watcher's General Store

Snowy Owls? - 01/04/02


Dear Bird Folks,

I have been reading reports of Snowy Owls being on the Cape this winter. Don't they come from way up north? Why are they here? Does that mean a hard winter is coming? Where can i see these owls? Helen - Yarmouthport

Wow, Helen,

Four questions in one, way to get your money's worth. You must have been saving up. Let's take the first question first, seems to make sense to me.

Yes, Snowy Owls do come from way up north, way up. They live so far north that even Santa rarely visits them. Snowy owls breed up past the timberline,nesting on the ground in the open tundra. Snowies are different from most owls. They don't need to wait for the cover of dark to go hunting, as they are highly diurnal. They have to be since there is no nighttime during most fo the Arctic summers.

Seeing a Snowy Owl isn't a forecast of hard winter (unless you live in Buffalo), but it could be a forecast of a hard winter for the lemmings. Lemmings are a very important food source for snowy owls. (When I say lemmings, I'm talking about a small mouse-like creature, not those people who put "Cape Cod Tunnel" stickers on their cars.) Every few years, the northern lemming population crashes and the owls are forced to pack up and head south looking for food. Snowies look soft and peaceful but they are ferocious hunters. They will eat anything that moves, from rabbits to Canada Geese to Great Blue Herons to people's wayward pets. They even eat other large mammals (insert your own lawyer joke here). One Snowy Owl was observed carrying off a live horse from a local farm, but that story later turned out to be false. The owl was only carrying a small pony.

The best place to see Snowy Owls around here is Wellfleet, at the theater, or any place where "Harry Potter" is playing. That movie is full of owls. The next best place is an isolated sand dune. These owls are rather shy and for the most part try to avoid people. And like we said earlier, they like open areas and have little use for trees. So far this season, Snowy Owls have been reported at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, South Beach in Chatham and in Marstons Mills, perhaps around the airport.

Off Cape, owls have been reported on Duxbury Beach and Logan Airport in Boston. Logan always seems to get a lot of Snowy Owls. The airport has lots of open space and plenty of city rats to eat. However, I wouldn't advise going to Logan to search for owls for a while. Airport security has been a little edgy lately.

Since Snowy Owls avoid trees and stay out in the open, they actually are one of the easiest owls to find. You don't have to wait for the right time, the right tide or the right weather to look for them. They are sitting out in the open day and night. Simply pick your favorite isolated beach, grab your binoculars and head out. Try to keep a low profile. That means don't bring your wacky dog or your boom box along with you. Take your time and constantly scan the horizon with your binoculars. And who knows, with a little luck you may find an owl. Finally: Remember to dress warm, just don't wear your rabbit-lined gloves or your lemming-collared jacket or you could end up like that poor pony.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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