The natural world doesn’t grab headlines too often. It’s just not suited to the 24-hour news cycle. Hard to imagine the paperboy shouting, “Extra! Extra! Photosynthesis continues! Plankton swallowed alive in Pacific! Birds glad to have wings, study shows! Read all about it!” Then again, it’s getting hard to imagine kids selling papers, period.
But once in while nature does something newsworthy. A Golden Eagle takes down a deer in Russia, directly in front of a remote-control camera. A Japanese crab arrives in Oregon after catching a ride on a bit of debris. A young wizard gets his report card delivered by an owl.
If you read the papers, you may already know that the winter of 2014 belongs to one animal: the snowy owl. All across the continent, this rare visitor from the tundra has everybody talking, and this time it’s got nothing to do with Harry Potter. (Or so we think.) From Oregon to Louisiana, New England to Bermuda, snowy owls are showing up at strip malls, airports, traffic lights, gravel pits, salt marshes, and open spaces of all kinds—not just a few errant wanderers, but hundreds of them, a once-in-a-lifetime explosion.
Photographs by Sharon Harvell
Snowy owls are an irruptive species, meaning that their migration depends on their varying food supply from year to year. The owl’s movements seem to be tied to the politics of two rodents, the brown and arctic lemmings, sweet, pocket-sized, gerbilly creatures whose populations soar and plummet more wildly than the stock market. A summer with lots of lemmings means plenty of food for young owls; that, in turn, means lots of owls survive to adulthood. In winter, those young owls must seek their fortune elsewhere in order to survive, so they go south, looking for food in warmer climes.
When they reach our relatively tropical latitudes, they often find fame as well. The scene last weekend at Rye Harbor State Park, New Hampshire, was one repeated many places across the country. New Hampshirites tend to be a hard-bitten bunch who pride themselves on being tough to impress, but on this occasion all defenses were down. A crowd of breathless, beaming, blushing, amateur paparazzi, fifty strong, formed a semi-circle around a bemused snowy owl, which sat on the ground, apparently unconcerned, about twenty yards away. For most owls, this is their first visit to Civilization, and as a result, they often act surprisingly “tame” around their human admirers. They seem almost to play to the camera.
Photograph by Aiden Moser
Our fascination is warranted. If this owl is a visitor from a harsher, unintelligible world, then why is it dressed up as a cuddly child’s toy? The strange gaze coming at you out of those narrowed eye-slits, bright yellow around coal-black centers, manages to be both comically nearsighted and frighteningly alien. This, you think, is a bird that’s not afraid of man nor beast. Its beak is hardly visible behind its muffling facial feathers, yet it yawns to reveal a revolting, amoxicillin-pink mouth and tongue. Enormous feet, its main weaponry, are covered in thick feathers: danger walks around in white slippers.
Photograph by Aiden Moser
But the Great Snowy Owl Invasion of 2014 may be more than simply a great photo-op: what if it’s Nature’s desperate publicity stunt? New data from radio-tagged owls suggest that lemming populations don’t write the whole story of the owl’s migration. Interestingly, some owls fly north in the winter to hunt the ducks which collect in open pools between banks of Arctic ice. The warming climate, some scientists speculate, may be making such hunting impossible, forcing many more snowies southward to find food in our backyards. What’s a feast for photographers this winter may spell eventual famine for these owls. Is this year’s irruption the first of many, and if so, how long can the fragile tundra support the bird’s population? Read all about it, read all about it, while you can, while you can.
Photograph by Andre Moraes
Henry Walters is a writer, naturalist, teacher, falconer, and Secretary for Experimental Living at Dublin School in Dublin, New Hampshire. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire, and his first book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, was published in the fall of 2014.