Will We See Snowy Owls on the Seacoast This Winter?

For the past two winters snowy owls, which usually remain in the Arctic tundra, appeared on the Seacoast. Will it happen again?

Photo by Len Medlock

It happened two winters ago — first one, then another appeared. Soon the Seacoast was dotted with snowy owls. They perched on rocks and roofs, pilings and power poles, wherever they could see prey with their fierce yellow eyes. 

Birdwatchers and photographers arrived in droves, mostly in Hampton and Rye, to document what was said to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience — an irruption, a sudden upsurge in numbers, of a species that normally spends winters in the frozen Arctic tundra.

But that once-in-a-lifetime experience happened again last year; there was another irruption. And perhaps there will be another this year. Birdwatchers and photographers certainly hope so.

 “We don’t know for sure what causes irruptions,” says Rebecca Suomala, a NH Fish and Game biologist. “But we’re pretty sure it’s linked to how many lemmings there are in the tundra.” Snowy owls feed on lemmings and, when there is a good supply of them, the just-hatched snowy owls have a better chance of survival. Instead of three or four fledglings alive by summer’s end, there are eight or nine.

Suomala says it seems that a heavily populated tundra induces the younger birds to fly south in search of winter hunting grounds with fewer competitors. The Seacoast is probably attractive because it has some similarities to the tundra — flat, with few trees and open water.

If there is another irruption this year, Suomala says the best place to look for the owls is  at the state parks in Rye and Hampton. She adds a caution: “Stay at a respectful distance from them. They’re either hunting or resting. If they’re startled, it could cause them to fly. That tires them out or it could make them fly into traffic. If a bird is responding to you, you are too close.” Viewing from a car is suggested.

During the first irruption two years ago, Project SNOWstorm was formed to “better understand this majestic Arctic raptor.” It’s a national organization (there were irruptions in other places across the country, but mostly on the East Coast) designed to educate the public about the periodic upsurges. It’s also tracking the owls’ migrations with solar-powered GPS-GSM transmitters that are attached with a backpack harness. More than 20 owls have been captured and harnessed so far.

The owls’ locations are recorded at intervals and downloaded to the cellular phone network. Their paths are plotted and posted online at the Project’s website.

The information sheds light on the winter behavior of the owls, allowing scientists  insights into their nocturnal life and where and when they hunt.


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