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The quest for the Snowy Owl

By Barbara Houston, Guest blog

11:09 AM EST, January 8, 2014

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No, this is not an article about Harry Potter's owl Hedwig, the snowy owl that delivers packages and accompanies him in his travels. The snowy owls are one of the most beautiful and mysterious birds on earth and not something many people get to see unless you count the movies. But with the current invasion of the Arctic-breeding raptors into the United States, more people are getting to personally witness this gorgeous owl.

Every winter, a portion of the Snowy Owl population flies south from their breeding grounds in the Arctic, but every three or four years or so, thousands of them fly far south. The winter of 2013-14 has seen the biggest invasion in decades of these owls into the northeast and even beyond. These invasions are known as irruptions in the birding world and occur sporadically and unpredictably and this winter has seen the biggest irruption in the last fifty years.

The irruption appears to be the results of a extraordinary breeding season in Northern Quebec, where the population of lemmings and other rodents on which the owl feeds were unusually high. All the food resulted in highly productive female owls, lots of eggs, and lots of babies.

On the east coast, owls have been seen in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and as far south as Jacksonville, Florida. The local birders have seen them in Yorktown, Chincoteague, and the Outer Banks.

One of the largest breeds of owls, Snowy Owls get their name from their white coloring. Weighing about four pounds, they are the heaviest owls in North America and they grow to be about 24 inches tall with an average wingspan of over 4 feet.

The owls have excellent vision using their large, round, yellow eyes like binoculars. They see equally well at night and are both nocturnal and diurnal, hunting both day and night. In the summertime Arctic, daylight lasts 24 hours so Snowy Owls hunt in the daylight too.

Since the arctic is an open, treeless land, Snowy Owls tend to perch on high points that overlook open spaces including beaches and airports. They may choose a lamp post or rooftop, but seldom perch in a tree.

Watch the fields and beaches and that white bird you see may just be one of these magnificent birds, a Snowy Owl.

Barbara Houston is a freelance photographer in New Kent County. She may be reached at Barbara@fynefoto.com.