In the last week I’ve heard about half a dozen Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) on the edges of Jamaica Bay, all within the bounds of NYC. Elsewhere, bird watchers in New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwestern states are reporting unusually large numbers of these tundra natives. This is a major irruption year, perhaps the largest in a generation. Why? Poor conditions in an already harsh environment, probably a lack of food. I would wager a peak year for lemmings produced a peak year of viable owl young. Come the lemming crash, an awful lot of owls are still hungry. Still, it is a hell of long way to come. Once here, though, they prefer our most tundra-like habitats: grasslands and dunes. These are birds of treeless places and so usually perch on the ground or on posts.
Anyway, I figured this would be the time to see one, without having to get out to Jones Beach, Breezy Point, or, out in Massachusetts, Great Point. And so on Sunday, I saw my first ever Snowy Owl. Looking like a white plastic bag from a distance, as in the center of the photo above (as good as iPhone optics get)… only plastic bags don’t turn their heads. It was well into these off-limit grasslands (unfortunately, there are few signs; ironically, last week a park police car flushed one of the owls). Being responsible citizens/ethical observers, we stayed on the concrete.Snowy owls are the biggest North American owl species by weight; that bulk is made up of thick feather insulation against the cold. In their breeding grounds in the endless sunlight north of the Arctic Circle, they hunt lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey. Down here they’ll hunt rodents, other mammals, and birds. Jamaica Bay is riddled with feral cats, which may also be on the menu.
Update: With all the owls, there’s lots of chatter. A study at Jones Beach of Snowy Owl pellets shows they eat rodents almost exclusively there. One in Piermont a while back was observed gobbling up Ruddy Ducks, our smallest duck species, frequently. But, I’ve now heard a couple reports from upstate of owls dehydrated and starved to death. It’s an amazing spectacle for us, but this far-from-home situation isn’t necessarily good for the birds, who are often hatch-year birds, that is, young and inexperienced.