Our favorite winter residents are back, the Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus)! The first sighting for Nantucket was at Smith’s Point this week. If you consider yourself a birder, or just an admirer, it is always thrilling to see these stunning birds of prey with their intense yellow eyes.
Have you ever wondered why we typically see them on our beaches in the winter? During the summer months, Snowy Owls breed up in the tundra of the Arctic and some of the population will migrate south for the winter. The tundra is a wide-open, treeless terrain, similar to how a beach looks in the winter. They like to stay close to the ground to hunt so having a wide-open terrain allows them to see from all directions. The main diet for a Snowy Owl consists of small rodents such as lemmings or voles and birds sitting on the water offshore. When they are spotted on the island, they are usually seen resting on a dune or perched on a low structure. The best locations to find these birds around Nantucket are at Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, Great Point, Smith’s Point, & Eel Point.
The winter of 2013-2014 was an “irruption” year for these owls. There were so many young owls that during their winter migration, they were flying as far south as Florida. There was speculation as to why this happened and many people believed it was because their food supply was low. Lemmings and other rodents were scarce, so they were on the search for food. However, as it turned out, it was quite the opposite. It was actually a boom year for lemming reproduction, creating an abundance of food for Snowys, which in turn, allowed them to successfully rear more offspring as well. Researchers saw this as an opportunity to learn more about this species and decided to put GPS transmitters on as many owls as they could to find out where they go. If you want to learn more about this project please visit: https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/
If you are worried about trying to get a glimpse of one, there is no need to rush. This is just the first sighting and more will soon arrive. Snowy owls tend to stay around all winter long, leaving at the end of April to early May. But you just never know, this past season a young male stayed out at Great Point until July 12th. Please keep in mind while viewing these birds to be respectful and keep your distance.
The Nantucket Conservation Foundation is a private, non-profit land trust that depends contributions from our members to support our science projects, conservation property acquisitions and land management efforts. If you are not already a member, please join us! www.nantucketconservation.org