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Tips for Finding Snowy Owls


(Photo: Mike Lyncheski)

First, pick auspicious conditions– i.e. a day with moderate temperatures, little wind and no precipitation. Any daylight hour is fine–these owls are active in daylight. Be prepared to spend several hours in your search. Snowy Owls habitually home in on the same traditional locations, all of which are summarized in William J Boyle’s A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey. Most of these locations are coastal because Snowy Owls are coastal even in the Arctic.   Marshes and beaches devoid of trees more closely resemble the Arctic tundra they are accustomed to. Also check New Jersey eBird for recent owl postings accessed through the New Jersey Audubon Website.

From the parking area of whatever coastal access point you select, scan all elevated points–house roofs, utility poles, dunes, osprey nesting platforms, snow fences, and large pieces of driftwood. Snowy Owls are visual hunters and they like a perch with a view. Also scan the beach paying close attention to the area close to the dunes. Watch other wildlife. A keening or diving gull may alert you to the presence of an owl. So, too may the absence of gulls. In winter gulls tend to space themselves evenly along the beach. When scanning the beach look for a stretch of beach where there are no gulls. Gulls and Owls don’t mix. Crows, Northern Harriers and falcons also harass sitting owls. Watch for birds swooping repeatedly over the same spot.

When you spot an owl resist the temptation to get too close. Flushing the bird is considered poor etiquette. When the bird starts staring at you, you’re close enough. For birds on the ground this is about 100 feet. Elevated birds feel more secure. Also approach with the wind in your face. Owls take off into the wind. If the bird knows it is going to have to approach you when it elects to fly, it will be more anxious and more apt to leave as you approach. Remember the bird will want to fly away from you. Give it room and stop as soon as the bird begins to appear anxious about your presence. 

It is possible to love owls to death. Flushed birds have collided with stationary objects and once airborne they attract the attention of crows, gulls and hawks, which will pursue and harass them. Be responsible give owls the privacy they need. 

Not all Snowy Owls are white. In fact many juvenile birds look soot stained–even blackish. Your search image is a two foot soot-flecked Snowman. However, birds standing on a perch or facing into the wind adopt a more horizontal profile.  You may easily dismiss a Snowy Owl as “just a Clorox bottle washed up on the beach,” But Clorox bottles don’t have bright yellow eyes or heads that swivel 180 degrees. Also gulls ignore Clorox bottles.

Seeing a Snowy Owl is a rare privilege. Don’t tarnish the memory by disturbing the owl.

If you go on a scheduled field trip, the leader will almost certainly have a high quality spotting scope which will offer you super natural views of the bird. You may even see your reflection in the bird’s eye–a lemming’s eye-view of one of the planet’s most refined and winsome predators.

Pete Dunne