Owls are commonly heralded as mysterious creatures of the night that are rarely encountered, like our tiny screech owl which in all it’s simplicity has created quite a stir in these parts. Currently in the region is a bird that reminds us of how diverse the owl family is, and how conveniently situated southeastern New England is for avian diversity on a year-round basis.
The Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca), unlike the owls we normally see (or miss!) that may be invisible against any tree trunk, is an unmistakable large, strikingly white, diurnal owl. Snowy Owls are a true bird of the north, arriving from their Arctic tundra breeding grounds during winter in variable numbers each year, abundance dependent upon food availability.
Snowy owls are part of a classic predator-prey relationship due to their reliance on the lemming population in the Arctic. In a phenomenon called “irruptions” where northerly birds migrate south in winter in high numbers during periods of food scarcity, snowy owls descend upon the region when the arctic lemming population crashes. While exciting to see, some owls become weakened due to the combination of starvation and harsh conditions, and may suffer mortality.
This appears to be an irruption year with many owls appearing statewide. This bird has been hanging out at Gooseberry Neck in Westport and offered great views before heading to an offshore rock. The bird was perched on the ground between two rocks along the beach at the southwest tip of the island.
Being a bird of open arctic tundra, snowy owls winter in open areas and can be found on rocks, dunes, grasslands, and near-ground structures such as fence posts. Wintering owls may feed on small mammals, birds, or fish. The dusky barring probably makes this a female bird, with males having a more pure white plumage.
Photo by Jamie Bogart