Not many people would imagine Maine being a warm respite in the winter, but to Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) Maine is the perfect vacation. This large, mostly white owl spends summers living and nesting on the Arctic tundra, eating small animals such as lemmings, voles, and ptarmigan. Come winter, when these primary food sources are considerably scarcer, Snowy Owls come south for more available food.
Over the past few years, I have been aware of irruptions of Snowy Owls across the Great Lakes and Northeastern USA and have been driven to see one in the wild. These “irruptions” are winters when lots of Snowy Owls move south from the Arctic. The theory behind why this happens is that in years when their food is abundant in the Arctic, Snowy Owls are able to reproduce more easily and more of their young survive. When winter comes to the Arctic and the owls start to move south, there are suddenly more Snowy Owls moving south–which are more likely to be noticed by humans. For more information about these “irruptions” (and an amazing photo of a Snowy Owl nest surrounded by 70 lemmings in northern Quebec!), check out Project Snowstorm‘s resources.
On this past week’s Winter Solstice, I embarked on my fifth hike to specifically find these vacationing owls. Reminiscent of their usual wide open tundra landscape, open mountain-tops, fields, beaches, and airports are good places to seek these feathery travelers. I also highly recommend using eBird as a resource, where you can get daily alerts of where Snowy Owls have been sighted across the USA (and record your own bird sightings). On my past attempts to find these owls, I have hiked the same coastal mountain that I’ve heard from many sources experiences regular winter visits from Snowy Owls–to no avail. This particular summit is notoriously windy, and when covered with snow on a gray day, spotting a white owl on a landscape that is completely white is a challenge.
Last week, however, I was feeling hopeful: there were highs in the mid-30s F, it was sunny with pure blue skies, the wind was blowing at only 5-10mph at sea level, and we’d had a recent warm-spell that melted most of the snow from open areas. Prepared with light crampons, many insulative and wind-breaking layers, binoculars, a camera, and all the fixings for making hot miso noodle soup at the summit, we were ready to go.
While open, seemingly barren, mountain-tops do not appear hospitable to the human eye, a careful look at the tracks in the remaining patches of snow quickly indicated that Snowy Owls would certainly have a food source up there. Snowshoe hare and small rodent tracks criss-crossed almost every patch of snow.
At the summit, we made and enjoyed our hot, restorative lunch with eyes scanning the landscape. One raven silently glided over us, but that was all the bird-life we noticed. We decided to hike down the long way, which would allow for more time on the open ridgeline. Just as we began our descent, we noticed an even clearer clue that snowy owls had been here recently: an owl track in the snow.
As we started our slow, chilling hike south along the ridge, we stopped at regular intervals to scan the landscape with the binoculars. I noticed what appeared to be two-thirds of a small snowman hunkered on the lee side of a rock–perfectly matching the other lumps of snow scattered on the ridge–and humorously asked my hiking partner with the binoculars whether it was an owl. It was!
We were able to crawl slowly towards it, hidden by a larger rock, which allowed for some great views of this male Snowy Owl. He certainly noticed us, but clearly did not mind our observation. He sat still but for the smooth 270 degree rotation of his head, scanning the landscape (and us) for the potential of food or threats.
After about a half hour of observation, we decided to move on and allow our fingers to thaw. In the distance, we noticed another owl-like shape further south on the ridge and confirmed the existence of yet another Snowy.
This one had more dark feathers than the first and was considerably more skittish, so it flew almost as soon as it noticed us.
Replete with surprise at seeing two of these majestic owls, enthusiasm over getting good pictures of them both, and gratitude for the beautiful weather and experience, we made our way down the mountain over icy trails. I can hardly imagine a better way to spend a day.
For more information about Snowy Owls, check out these resources: