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Snowy Owls

By Margo D. Beller

This has been a particularly good year for seeing Snowy Owls in New Jersey. Island Beach State Park, Brigantine and Sandy Hook have had lots of Snowy Owls.

A few days before my husband and I saw a Snowy Owl at Island Beach late last year, Pete Bacinski, who directs the All Things Bird site for New Jersey Audubon with Scott Barnes, had written in his blog that over two dozen have been seen in New Jersey in 2013, and Snowy Owls were also seen as far south as Virginia and North Carolina and one on Bermuda this winter. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, one was also seen as far south as Jacksonville, Florida!

Every few years there is an “irruption” of birds normally only found in the far north, which are forced south to find food. Thanks to past irruption years I have been able to see both types of Crossbills (in Long Branch, N.J.), Common Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks (in New Hampshire) and a pair of Bohemian Waxwings (at Sandy Hook.)

In 2011 a Snowy Owl caused a sensation within the birding community when it hung out near the dam at the Merrill Creek Reservoir. In 2007, a Snowy Owl showed up in Piermont, N.Y., hanging out on a pier in the harbor. MH and I were among the crowd who went to see it. It seemed rather bored and the photographers with their gun-like, long lenses were getting frustrated the owl was just sitting there and not doing something dramatic, such as snagging one of the Ruddy Ducks swimming below it.

Finding a Snowy Owl on the beach this past December was about as different an experience as we could get, and much better.

snowy.owl.at.jersey_shore (Rich)

These owls are usually found on open country – beachs and airports, which are the closest things to their native tundra. When several were killed at one New York airport because of fear they’d fly into airplanes, there was a great hue and cry against it (including from me), The airport stopped the shooting and started trapping and releasing elsewhere, the way it’s been done at Boston’s Logan Airport for years.

That was in December. When I read the news report, I wrote to Pete Bacinski, who has always been kind enough to tolerate my outbursts. We “talked” via email about Snowy Owls and he told me something extraordinary.

Maybe perhaps thanks to “Harry Potter,” people think of Snowy Owls as “Hedwig,” Harry’s owl. That’s fine for spurring people to want to protect them but Pete told me many people believe Snowys “have mystical powers” and have tried to hug them!

These aren’t plush toys, people, they’re sharp-taloned killers.

Those who aren’t trying to hug them want to take their picture, the more up close and personal the better. One photographer even told the New Jersey bird list that it is the owl’s responsibility to fly off it it’s bothered, Pete told me.

There is such a thing as owl etiquette. Since most owls are nocturnal, they roost by day. People finding them by day should keep their distance and, when reporting the owls, should not broadly report the exact location in order to keep the birds from being harassed and stressed out. Even the Snowy Owl, which hunts by day, will get stressed if you get in its face with your camera.

R Screech Owl prime hook

Imagine how you’d feel if someone kept waking you up every 15 minutes, sometimes taking your picture. Like your worst hospital experience times 10.

Some people are not wise when it comes to owls. Several years ago some Long-Eared Owls were found at the Great Swamp. I went there and personally witnessed a photographer take his big lens and get in the owls’ faces – until I yelled at him to back off. That lasted until I drove off – I saw him in the rear-view mirror crossing the road again. I was not surprised the owls soon left.

There have been no Snowy Owls seen at Scherman Hoffman – yet. Screech and Great-Horned Owls are in residence, breeding at the sanctuary or nearby every year. Saw-Whet is on the checklist – seen once by Rich Kane. Barred Owl and Long-Eared Owl are on the sanctuary “wish list,” according to director Mike Anderson. These are common owls in New Jersey in the right habitat at the right time of year. Short-Eared Owl, which, according to one of Pete’s more recent blogs, is now the “hot” owl to find, was seen migrating over the sanctuary a few years ago.

Whatever owl you might happen find, please treat it with respect and save the hugs for your friends and family.

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