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The Great Snowy Invasion of '14

February 14, 2014

Credit: Henry Walters
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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

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Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming 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 (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory. A book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, will be published in the fall of 2014.

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Comments

Did I see a snowy owl? I

By martha0

Did I see a snowy owl? I live up river on the southern Oregon coast. At dusk two nights ago, an all white owl swooped silently overhead as I was near a stand of Spruce trees. Awesome.

INTERESTING DESCRIPTION I

By Bklyncowgirl

INTERESTING DESCRIPTION

I find it odd and a bit disconcerting that the author, a naturalist, teacher and falconer, would choose to describe the owls' "amoxicillin pink mouth" as "revolting".

Interesting! I hope that

By potsonna

Interesting! I hope that everyone's weekend was both great and safe,enjoyed the recent holiday that we've had,having a good week and has another good weekend!

Snowy owl is absolutely

By DeniseLaFountain

Snowy owl is absolutely beautiful.Its such a pleasure just to see an owl,on occasion.How wonderful it would be to see a snowy owl.You people are fortunate.

I love the descriptive

By Marmeeof2

I love the descriptive phrases, " amoxicillin-pink tongue, and danger walks around in white slippers", among others. Definitely gives depth to the pictures. Thank you.

I, too like the descriptions

By Jo45601

I, too like the descriptions given for these beautiful creatures.

the 'open pools' in southern

By r mull

the 'open pools' in southern Canada were frozen by the colder temperatures this winter, so the ducks that normally winter there were farther south, or more toward the coasts. Wasn't aware that southern Canada had 'arctic ice.' Heavy snows also provide more protection for lemmings against above-snow predators.

Warming? LOL. I did not

By Geo J

Warming? LOL. I did not realize that F.A. was a left-wing, progressive ideological site. Who knew? Well, I do now.

Yep! Must throw in a plug for

By State-of-Jefferson

Yep! Must throw in a plug for global warming.

Gosh Geo J, I didn’t think

By We W

Gosh Geo J, I didn’t think the reference to warmer climate was promoting left or right wing politics – just a statement of the present condition. There is less pack ice in the Arctic these days. A warmer Arctic Ocean has vast areas of open ocean and allows the sea ducks to disperse over larger areas. This makes hunting harder for the owls. Warmer air and sea temperatures also increases moisture in the area resulting in more snow cover and makes hunting lemmings harder. The Owls travel south to find food; I don’t think they have registered with any particular political party, they are just hungry :)

This is such a wonderful

By L. Plunkett

This is such a wonderful article, it's a shame how after reading one word, you shut down and go into rejection mode.

Agree. Very well-written

By georgewilson

Agree. Very well-written piece.

It's cyclical. Every so many years, the rodent population seems to crash and, especially cold years like this one, the birds just go elsewhere.

He sure doesn't read The Old Farmer's Almanac if he thinks it's left-wing. What a knee-jerk reaction. Read their weather predictions and cool Sun theories and you'll see it's not politically motivated.

I've seen more snowy owls

By Dusty Mccarthy

I've seen more snowy owls this winter then in the past. I know sometimes they say the cold drives them down here in northern Michigan. But this winter I have even seen snow hawks and even a pair of golden eagles which I actually had to google to make sure I was Identifying it correctly. I am sure some of it is a part of global warming. This is the worst winter I can remember. I do find them neat an fun to watch. With seeing them being a treat for us since they normally do stay north. Good or bad I can't say but if it keeps up then I have to go for bad.

Absolutely amazing pictures

By georgewilson

Absolutely amazing pictures and enjoyed how well they went with your description of the snowy owl--all fluffed up and seeming to play to the camera.

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