Snowy Owls Spotted in New Jersey

Arctic raptors are landing along our shores. Far south of their normal hunting grounds. Whether because their food supply is dwindling or their population is exploding or the climate is confusing. The majestic federally protected snowy owls are back. Any time a species appears far afield it gets ornithologist’s attention. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams sat down with Scott Barnes, the program director for all things birds at the New Jersey Audubon.

Williams: And that’s actually that is your title, the director of programs for all things birds. How many snowy owls are we seeing?

Barnes: There are a few in the state this year — less than we had three years ago when there was a once in a 100 year invasion of them, but there are several here. And unlike a lot of species of owls they prefer open habitats. So, I think a lot of people assume most owls would be found in woodland areas, but snowy owls prefer open country, whether it’s beaches or dunes or agricultural areas or even sometimes urban locations are ones where these birds prefer.

Williams: What’s their usual migratory pattern?

Barnes: They are somewhat nomadic. They have done radio tracking of them in Alaska where birds — some from the same area — went all the way to eastern Canada, some came down south to the lower 48 and I think in one case, at least one flew across the Bering Sea and spent the winter over in Siberia. So, they really don’t have a totally established pattern, but when we see them here it’s typically from around December through March. They are birds coming south and what recent research has shown is that it has more to do with a boom in the population of lemmings — which are small Arctic rodents — and when there are an abundance of lemmings, the owls are more successful at reproducing. So, there’s a lot more offspring and those offspring are often the most likely to migrate south into the lower 48.

Williams: Because they can’t compete for the food supply.

Barnes: The parents will kick them out of their territories because they have got to eat too. So, it’s up to them to go find a different spot that they can call their own for the winter. They don’t just eat lemmings, they also when they come down here a lot of times they are actually eating ducks. They will fly out over large bodies of water, even the ocean.

Williams: Are they that big and strong?

Barnes: They weigh about four pounds. They are technically the heaviest owl that we have in North America. There is one other species that’s a little larger in size, but the snowy is the heaviest owl and their wingspan on average is in the low 50-inch range. So, they are pretty large and tough birds.

Williams: Four-foot wingspan? Wow.

Barnes: Yep, so they are a big bird. They have feathers all the way down under their talons. So, they are a big heavy bird that’s able to keep warm in the cold weather.

Williams: You referred to the influx of snowy owls in 2013 and 2014. Is this cyclical or can we expect to see this all the time and does it have anything to do with climate change?

Barnes: I don’t know yet if it has to do with climate change. Certainly climate change is something to watch as far as how it would affect their breeding grounds. You know whether or not an ice out is going to affect them, because the adults especially don’t leave the Arctic and they will often go out onto the sea ice and hunt ducks and things like that in the winter on the sea ice. But you know a changing climate is certainly something that may affect them. The cyclical nature is yes just that, it is cyclical and it’s every couple of years or so we have more of them in the state, never like that 100 year even, but you know maybe two, three or five in the state. Some years we don’t have any. This year there are at least probably two or three that we know of and certainly it’s possible there are more that nobody has discovered yet.

Williams: They are federally protected. What could prevent them from surviving as a species?

Barnes: I think their population is considered stable, for now. So, there are probably not huge threats that face them eminently, but again climate change would certainly be one of them. Changes in the Arctic as far as development of maybe energy operations and things like that could be another factor. When they’re on the wintering grounds, some of the recent studies too were finding that there are still chemical issues with them. One of the ones that comes up is if they occupy urban areas, which they will do, because even somewhere like Newark if it wants to sit on top of a building all day it’s got it to itself. So, even though there’s tons of people in Newark, there are places where they can go where they are undisturbed. And in urban areas where there’s maybe more of a population of rats, if companies or businesses use rat poison, the owls can eat rats that have ingested poison and then that works its way into them and it can affect them. They’re also susceptible to things like telephone lines and high tension lines where they will sometimes fly into those and hit those. There is a lot of natural mortality in birds of prey. Anytime you are working your way up the food chain there’s just generally less of that species than when you’re down lower on the food chain. So, it surprises a lot of people, but birds of prey, things like falcons, eagles and owls, it is normal for there to be something like a 70 percent mortality rate for birds in their first year of life. A lot of them just don’t make it, but once they make it past their first birthday, then they’ve a good shot at living for something probably — I think the oldest snowy owl was about 20 years old that they know of.

Williams: What should people do if they come upon them — if they accidentally flush them from somewhere? Or if birders go looking for them. How should they handle it?

Barnes: Enjoy it, but keep your distance. They are federally protected species, but it’s also one that ethically we don’t want to cause them undo disturbance. You know, repeated flushing of them and things like that is obviously not in their interest. Some of them may be tired. They might not have been able to find food for a few days, they may have just flown a great distance so, enjoy them. Most birders have spotting scopes where you can get a really good look at them from far away. Enjoy them, but don’t get too close, that is really the bottom line for that.

Williams: Scott Barnes, thanks for being here.

Barnes: My pleasure.