'Snowy' spectacle visits South Coast
They're turning up atop barns in Westport and Little Compton and on rocks from Sakonnet to Sachuest Point.
One snowy owl posed for a picture on the Newport Bridge recently.
A few overshot the South Coast altogether. Crewmembers of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution photographed one perched on a research buoy at the edge of the Continental Shelf 100 miles southeast of Cape Cod — see it for yourself. Another was spotted on a Bermuda rooftop.
And some have unfortunately taken a liking to airports whose wide open spaces may resemble the northern tundra that is their usual home.
Little Compton photographer Geoff Dennis has seen it for himself. During a recent boat ride he photographed six of them on coastal rocks. Two were across the Sakonnet River at Middletown's Sachuest Point, two at Sakonnet Point's Lloyd's Beach, and one each on East and West islands out near the Sakonnet Light. He has also photographed them recently up in trees and on rooftops.
"One snowy around here is a pretty big deal, two certainly a notch or more above that, but six snowies in one quick boat ride ... unbelievable," he said.
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They've seen them in Westport too — around Allens Pond, near Cherry & Webb Beach and other places — photographers are urged to keep their distance and leave the dogs at home. Constant disturbances cause the owls to use up energy and can interfere with their hunting, naturalists caution.
Observers say that owls seem to be targeting birds here — gulls, American black duck, bufflehead and others — in part because other prey may be more difficult to find.
"We’re experiencing what could be the largest-ever influx of Arctic snowy owls into the Northeast and the Great Lakes states. And more may be on the way," said the Cornell Lab of Ornithology last Wednesday.
Adds eBird, an organization that tracks bird sightings, "Snowy owls are staging an incredible invasion and reports continue to roll in."
“More than likely these snowy owls are moving south from the Arctic because of a shortage of their favorite food up north — lemmings, or because of a bumper crop of young," said Cornell biologist Kevin McGowan. "We can expect them to stick around through early spring before they head back to the Arctic again.”
Although memorable for bird watchers, the snowy owl abundance has been worrisome for airports. Several were shot at New York City airports after one was sucked into a jet engine.
"The killing of some owls at New York City airports has resulted in an outcry against the practice," Dr. McGowan said, and a change in removal techniques. Recently, the Port Authority there announced that it "will move toward non-lethal trap and release methods" as is done at Boston's Logan Airport. “We applaud the move by the Port Authority to pursue non-lethal methods of removing snowy owls from JFK and LaGuardia airports. This is essential to reduce risk to people, and it also preserves the lives of these magnificent raptors.”
Dr. McGowan urges birders to take advantage of the rare opportunity.
“This year’s snowy owl irruption is the largest we’ve seen in decades in the Northeast and this is an awesome opportunity for people to see these birds. A really great way to find out where they are in your area is to check out the live maps at eBird, which tracks reports of the Snowy Owls, at www.eBird.org."