Ira Marder, a long-time Seatuck volunteer and an accomplished nature & wildlife photographer, recently passed along a few fantastic photos he took of snowy owls this winter out at Cupsogue Beach County Park in West Hampton. They're such spectacular birds - every one is more beautiful than the next! It prompted to me to re-post (below) a column I recently wrote about what a great year it's been for snowy owls on Long Island, and thoughout the east coast. The column was originally printed in the Great South Bay Magazine. Thanks for the stunning photos, Ira. Keep 'em coming! - Enrico
Photographs by Ira Marder, 2014. All rights reserved.
In a season during which many people flee Long Island for warmer climes, this winter has already been a historic one for visitors. Since mid-November, our region has seen record numbers of snowy owls the large, spectacularly-white, diurnal raptors popularized in the Harry Potter movies. While winter usually brings a few snowies to Long Island, this year there have already been dozens reported. The birds, which usually live far north in the Arctic Circle, have been spotted from Jones Beach to the Hamptons, and across the North Fork. They're generally found on beaches and amongst the dunes, areas that are similar the treeless, open tundra of their Arctic homes.
The unusual outbreak of snowies on Long Island has been part of a much larger movement of the birds out of Canada. Record numbers have been seen from the Pacific Northwest to the upper Midwest and throughout the Great Lakes region. But the largest numbers have been seen in the east. And it's in the east that the movement has been so extensive: the large white birds have been spotted all the way down to Florida, even out to the Bahamas!
The southerly movement of snowy owls out of the Arctic is't a true migration, as it doesn't happen annually. It is an event "called an irruption" that occurs irregularly pursuant to environmental conditions, usually every 4 to 6 years. But scientists are still trying to fully understand the conditions that drive such irruptions. One theory is that a drop in the population of lemmings "snowies" primary food sources forces the birds to move south in search of other prey during the winter. Another theory is that a boom in the lemming population (as occurred this past spring) produces higher-than-normal success in snowy owl breeding, which results in more snowy owls than the Arctic winter can support. This forces some owls, generally the younger ones, to move south in search of food.
Some of the snowy owls on Long Island will move back north as the weather warms and more prey becomes available on the tundra. Others won't make it through the winter (most of our visitors are young birds still learning how to hunt). But for the next few weeks Long Islanders have a unique opportunity to see one of the most striking and beautiful bird species in the world. It's a good reason to bundle up and take a drive to the beach!
- Enrico Nardone (Originally published in Great South Bay Magazine, Feb. 2014)