The Snowies have invaded.
That may sound like an exaggeration, as after all not many can claim to have spotted a Snowy Owl, especially in West Bay.
But Lawrence Taft, executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, says the Arctic birds have never been as plentiful in the history of Rhode Island bird watching. The birds have been spotted in Jamestown, Newport, Block Island, South Kingstown, Barrington, Providence and now Conimicut.
“Every day people are calling in that they have seen them,” Taft said in a telephone interview Friday. He called the phenomenon the “largest influx” of Snowies in New England in memory.
That sounds like a lot of birds.
It’s a matter of relativity.
Taft said the presence of the raptors in these parts goes in cycles, with many years passing with only a few reports of a sighting or none at all.
So, how big is this invasion?
Taft’s guess is that there are six Snowies in Rhode Island.
Warwick’s David Chartier, who makes a hobby of photographing birds, was one of those to capture multiple images of a Snowy. He was at Conimicut Point on Dec. 19 when he saw the bird standing on the sandbar. He photographed the bird then and again this past Sunday.
Such an open and flat area may seem like an odd place for such a large bird to take refuge. Not so, says Taft, observing that the natural habitat for the birds is the tundra and snowfields devoid of trees.
The location proved ideal for Chartier and his 400mm Canon telephoto lens. He clicked off numerous shots of the bird from its perch on the point to being on the wing. He considers the images some of his best, comparing the comparative rarity of the bird, surpassing his shots of a Bald Eagle snatching menhaden from Apponaug Cove.
Chartier believes the owl he photographed is a female, which goes along with Taft’s ascertain that most of the Arctic visitors are juveniles or females that have been forced to fly south in search of food. Females and immature birds often have brown feathers mixed in with white, whereas mature males are usually pure white. The males, Taft said, tend to stay in their natural hunting grounds.
Unlike other owls, the birds live in an environment where the sun never sets in the summer and never rises in the winter. Snowies, therefore, hunt both during the day and at night. In the Arctic they hunt lemmings or voles and seabirds. While visiting Rhode Island, Taft speculates they’ll dine on squirrels, rats, chipmunks and water birds.
“Invasion,” is also the word used by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In a Dec. 11 report on their eBird website, they report the owls have been seen as far south as North Carolina and even in Bermuda in an “incredible invasion” that is “one of the most dramatic natural history spectacles in the Northeast.”
The report says while lemming scarcity is often implicated in Snowy invasions, “a bigger driving force may be highly productive breeding seasons.” Also, the invasion is focused on North America rather than Russia or Northern Europe, which could suggest that breeding conditions “may have been excellent in the eastern Arctic this past summer.”
The invasion also raises larger questions.
“These owls are surely telling us something, but we still do not understand exactly what. It could be that this is a large invasion that is part of periodic and natural fluctuations; or an unsettled Arctic environment could be a part of the story.” Loss of sea ice, changes in snowfall and increases in summer temperatures are cited raising the specter of effects on “the ecosystem in ways we are only starting to understand.”
As for their stay in Rhode Island, Taft advises not to cause the birds undue stress. Advice offered by the Audubon Society is to use binoculars or spotting scopes and not to creep closer and closer in an effort to view them with the naked eye.
“Be content to view at a distance. Give them a distance of 200 to 300 feet or more. [This is not a bird you should be sneaking up on with your camera phone.] Photographers should use long lenses and tripods. If there is a group of people, try to stay as a group. Don’t encircle the owl. Give them at least a 180-degree escape route [i.e. all viewers should stay on one side of the bird]. Don’t observe them for an overly long period of time,” reads an Audubon release.