EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 7, 2013

What a hoot!

Birders revel in snowy owl visits

By Ulrika G. Gerth

---- — NEWBURYPORT — All rodents, please beware.

An unprecedented number of snowy owls have descended on the area.

Ecstatic to spot even a single one of the majestic predators, birders this week could hardly believe their eyes, scoring more than a dozen sightings on the Salisbury Beach State Reservation and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.

“This year is just extraordinary,” said Bill Gette, sanctuary director at the Joppa Flats Education Center.

For the 32 birders who gathered for a Wednesday morning birding session with Gette, the thrill began before they even left the building.

From the center’s first-floor lobby, they spotted their first snowy owl on Woodbridge Island near the bridge of the Plum Island Turnpike. A second appeared across the Merrimack River in Salisbury. The birders then piled into three vans and went exploring the refuge. Within three hours, they had seen another four of what Gette described as the “ooh-aah” bird.

One exceptionally white snowy owl rested on a piece of driftwood in the salt marsh near the Hellcat Wildlife Observation Area, its yellow eyes visible to the birders peering through a telescope only 150 yards away.

“Six is just a huge number,” Gette said. “We can go years and see none, or just one or two, so this is something we need to take advantage of.”

Some experts believe the large numbers of snowy owls could mark a historic wave of southward migration this winter. Snowy owls are so-called irruptive migrants, leaving their habitats at irregular intervals unlike birds such as the northern gannet, which always appears on Plum Island in November, Gette said.

Although it may seem like starvation would force snowy owls to make the long journey south from the Arctic Circle and Greenland, Gette said it is more likely a result of an abundance of food. A snowy owl can eat more than 1,0000 small rodents, called lemmings, each year. And when lemmings abound, the snowy owls thrive, producing large broods that eventually move in their own search for food.

Sue McGrath, the director of Newburyport Birders, was at Salisbury Beach when one flew by so close the group of birders could clearly see its impressive wingspan of 50 inches.

“They really are just beautiful,” said McGrath, who during one outing this week spotted seven snowy owls between Hellcat and Sandy Point State Reservation. “When I have birders who’ve never seen one before, I can relive the feeling I had when I saw it for the first time.”

The snowy owl stands around 2 feet tall and weighs up to six pounds, making it the largest owl by weight in North America. While the male is almost completely white, the larger female sports dark scalloping. They eat all types of rodents, small animals, ducks and shorebirds – and the competition for food will be fierce this winter, Gette said.

During his recent Wednesday morning trip, the group spotted several top predators, including two bald eagles, one red-tailed hawk, and two rough-legged hawks in addition to the snowy owls. The snowy owls are expected to stay through February although some may move on to stake their territory elsewhere if food runs short.

“I would hate to be a rodent,” Gette said, laughing. “The snowy owls will eat anything, they’re very powerful.”

Anyone interested in trying to spot a snowy owl is invited to join the Wednesday and Saturday morning birding groups at Joppa Flats. The center will lend optics if needed.

“It’d be good for people to get outside and see something beautiful on a nice, cold day,” Gette said. “We don’t know if it will come again.”