Of all the winter birds, seeing a snowy owl is the most exciting to me. We don’t see them in Westford; the habitat just isn’t right for them here, they are tundra dwellers. But, I have been lucky enough to see them on Plum Island and at Salisbury Beach most winters. Some years are better for seeing snowy owls than others. This winter is shaping up to be good snowy owl viewing, and I encourage you to make the short trek to the coast to see them. Seven snowy owls have been reported at Plum Island this January and February.
Snowy owls are one of our largest owls and are fierce predators with large strong talons. They weigh about 3.5 pounds, and have a wingspan of 4.5-5.5 feet. As in most raptors, females are larger than males. They eat mostly rodents, but have been known to successfully take down prey as large as geese and great blue herons. Snowy owls are predominately white, but females and juveniles may have black streaking on body, belly, wings and head. Their eyes are golden. In their summer habitat on the artic tundra they hunt lemmings and other small rodents. Snowy owls are active during the day and thus are much easier for us to see than other owls which are nocturnal. Snowy owls are ground nesters. When juveniles reach their first winter, they tend to disburse and may fly far south to find suitable hunting grounds. They favor dunes and coastal areas that are much like their summer homes on the artic tundra. Snowy owls are nomadic. When birds migrate south in unpredictable numbers, this is known as an “irruption”. The winter of 2017-18 is said to be the largest irruption of snowy owls since 2013. It is not known exactly why the birds migrate south more in some years than in others. One theory is that they migrate south in search of food in years when the lemming population up north is low. Mass Audubon thinks that the migration may be caused by plentiful food at their nesting grounds in the summer, and a consequently larger than normal number of young being hatched. Some of these juveniles may then begin exploring new territory in the winter.
Since 1997, Norm Smith of Mass Audubon has been catching and relocating owls found to have taken up residence at Logan Airport. Owls at the airport can cause a hazard for the planes. Smith releases the captured owls at Plum Island, Duxbury and Salisbury Beach. He attaches tiny transmitters to the feathers of some of those he releases, and then he is able to track them for a few months. When the animal molts, the transmitter falls off. For instance, Owl # 134376 was tracked from March 9, 2014-April 11, 2015. In March the animal was released on the north shore of Massachusetts. In April it traveled to southern Canada. In April and May it moved far north and summered in the upper Hudson Bay area where it presumably nested. It returned south again in November and December to southern Canada. You can see these fascinating migration maps; just Google Mass Audubon Snowy Owl Project.
Many thanks to all flora and fauna reporters for the month of February. Please send reports by March 26 for inclusion in next month’s column. You can call me at 978-692-3907, write me at our new address 7A Old Colony Drive, Westford, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Late January Reports:
Dot Mooney, Monadnock Dr. January 24, At least sixteen juncos in for seed early evening, three male and two female cardinals. January 26, beautiful male flicker on deck with doves and blue jays. Flicker came to the shelled sunflower feeder for some quick energy. January 29, seventeen doves, joined by seven blue jays. January 31, a dozen juncos with a pair of cardinals and a few blue jays on deck.
Rosemarie Koester, Providence Rd. January report: two pairs of blue jays, five cardinals, goldfinch, house finch, titmouse, chickadees, nuthatches, doves, lots of juncos, red-bellied woodpecker, white-throated sparrow, house sparrow, red-tailed hawk. Hearing coyotes again, sometimes one sometimes more, four gray squirrels, one lone chipmunk during warmer weather, deer racks in snow.
Debbie Prato, Hayrick Lane. January 29, flicker, cottontail rabbit.
Barbara Theriault, Tadmuck Lane. January 30, four adult and two young deer at edge of woods, cardinals, titmice, chickadees, juncos, woodpeckers at feeders.
Kate Hollister, Vine Brook Rd. February 2, we enjoy watching a red and grey squirrel chase one another away form the feeder. Not seeing many birds. We mostly see juncos and titmice at feeder, an occasional chickadee, house sparrow and hairy woodpecker.
Debbie Prato, Hayrick Lane. February 2, Canada geese, six mourning doves. February 4, six turkeys. February 7, first chipmunk. February 11, song sparrow. February 14, first red-winged blackbird. February 22, many robins, grackles and cowbirds. February 24, lots of cardinals and red-winged blackbirds, hawk with very dark head.
Phil Day, Graniteville Rd. February 10, heard a whole family of coyotes howling and yipping at about 10:30 at night.
Dot Mooney, Monadnock Dr. February 3, neighbor reported a blond colored squirrel. February 4, twenty-one juncos early morning. February 8, two crows perched in aspen trees. February 10, fourteen doves and at least ten blue jays. February 12, fourteen doves, a white-breasted nuthatch, two titmice on deck in the rain. Seventeen doves around. February 13 clear cold morning 5:45 a.m., a slender slice of moon over the back woods–beautiful. Later afternoon two white-breasted nuthatches scurrying around on deck with juncos. Three crows briefly perched in woods, always communicating with each other. February 16, twenty-two doves in aspen trees, waiting to drop down to eat. A colorful male house finch landed on deck. Lots of chatter from him lately. The goldfinches always have a lot to say. Two crows in aspens. February 18, at least fifteen blue jays, and twenty doves. Beautiful red-tailed hawk cruised over the length of lawn. February 19, early afternoon one goldfinch on deck. February 20, snow melting on this lovely warm day. Chickadee calling “fee-bee” several times, two others in the distance doing the same. Three noisy titmice in small crabapple tree, they call “tee-you” over and over. Nuthatch joined the others. In the afternoon, doves, pair of cardinals and juncos scattered all around out back. February 21 bright male cardinal calling boldly from a perch in sumac by woods. Sitting outside I can hear what sounds like a flock of blackbirds, the true harbingers of spring….”We’re getting there!” February 22, early morning one red-winged blackbird on deck for seed, ten minutes later two grackles there. “When large blackbird flocks arrive and eat everything in sight including older seed that other birds have left uneaten, that is a good thing. Mostly, just knowing they are here can lift your spirits.”
Leslie Thomas, Old Colony Drive, February 9, coyotes howling near Chamberlain Rd.
Marian/Bill Harman, Old Colony Drive. February 26, barred owl heard, crows, titmice, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, cardinal pair, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker pair, at least six goldfinches, six juncos, flicker heard, crows heard, red-tailed hawk seen in meadow, two white-tailed deer bounding away, one red squirrel, two gray squirrels.