Snowy Owl report  for 2013

Fri, 12/20/2013 - 4:00pm

“In Nov. and Dec. the greatest flight of Snow Owls ever recorded. The following numbers were shot on B.I. most of which were mounted. Hugh 3, Fred Shogren 1, Omar Littlefield 1, Ed Dodge 1, Harold Dunn 3, Sands Littlefield 2, Papa 1, George Millikin 2, Lincoln Payne, Jr. 2, Lester Littlefield 1, Will Conley, Sr. 2, Will Conley, Jr. 3, Byron Littlefield 1, Mrs. Eugene Littlefield purchased 1 from someone who shot it. 1 also shot by H. Pierce Feb. 5, 1927.” — From the “Memoranda” section of Elizabeth Dickens’ 1926 journal.

For 2013:

A regular island visitor, Maureen Dunn, reported seeing a snowy owl on the Old Harbor breakwater on Nov. 30, and since then the accumulation of sightings has grown.

In addition to other sightings Blake and Michelle Phelan saw two at Scotch Beach; Abra Savoie — one in the Spring House Hotel garden; Chris Blane — one near “Jack Grey’s old house” and one at Settlers Rock; Keith and Kay Lewis — one “on the Big Barn”; Chris Phelan — one flying off with a rat; John Jacobsen and Gwen Hart — one on the roof of their shed on Southeast Light Road.; Chirs Littlefield — one flying towards Bean Point; John Littlefield and sister Cindy — one on the roof of a house at Scotch Beach and moments later, another one on the roof of the Mohegan Café; John Spier – one in the Cuttings Cottages field; Jiffy Blansfield — one sitting on a porch near Scotch Beach; Marg Donnelly — one on Payne’s Dock; Bill Carey — one flying right in front of him at Crescent Beach; and these are only the ones I’ve heard about.

Surely some of these sightings are of the same individual bird as it moves around searching for prey and shelter, but it is equally likely that these sightings represent at least four individual birds.

In most years, snowy owls will winter between their Arctic breeding grounds and southern Canada and northern United States; however, some winters find irruptions of snowy owls into more southern states. Sometimes these irruptions of winter snowy owls are mild while others are of historic proportions. We are in the infancy of the winter of 2013-14 but already this is perched on being noted as one of the largest irruptions of snowies recorded. In the last decade big snowy owl irruption years included: 1926-27, 1941-42, 1945-46, and 1949-50.

Of course the question is “why?” Most wildlife biologists suggest the dynamics of food resources as triggers of bird irruptive behaviors. In the case of snowy owls, for which the arctic lemming is its primary food, either a dearth or an abundance of lemmings may trigger an irruption. A lack of lemmings may mean that owls need to travel far and wide in search of food. Or, a great abundance of lemmings may mean a very successful reproductive year resulting in large numbers of first-year birds competing for winter habitat and food resources. It is this later situation — a fantastic lemming population in northern Quebec province that is a leading hypothesis as to why so many immature snowy owls are showing up in eastern Canada and United states. So far the statistics —that include 300 snowy owls in Newfoundland (Dec. 7 - 8) and one snowy owl on Bermuda — are mind-boggling. Further, it is very likely that this is only the beginning, snowy owls are likely to be increasing in numbers in southern New England over the next month.

Three hundred snowy owls in Newfoundland and one in Bermuda is all well and good, but it is Block Island sightings that we care about. Block Island has played a roll in many snowy owl irruptive years (See Elizabeth Dickens’ journal entry for a different kind of snowy owl sightings from 1927 at the top of this column). The winter of 1905-06 was also a big year for snowy owls. Recorded in The Auk (Vol. XXIII 1906) 19 snowy owls were reported “taken” in Rhode Island; twelve of these —including two from Block Island — were documented by Angell & Cash, a well-respected taxidermy business in Providence.

Regardless of whether 2013-14 turns out to be a record breaking year for snowy owls in southern New England or Block Island, it is important to take note and keep track of this year’s sightings. For the citizen scientist-inclined you are encouraged to utilize eBird (a user-friendly online bird tracking system) and for those who still have a rotary dial telephone (as I do) feel free to call-in your sightings (401-466-2224).

The snowy owl is a majestic bird, the sight of which is worth a walk in inclement weather. Also known as the snow owl, this bird will motivate non-birders to spend some time afield. It inspires artists and folklore and the human spirit.

To learn more about snowy owls and this year’s mega irruption of snowies from the Arctic to Block Island and beyond, check out these sources:

Community Bird Census, Thursday, Dec. 26

And, to join the quest for a glimpse of a snowy owl join in the activities of the Ocean View Foundation’s annual Community Bird Census on Dec. 26, 2013.

Community Bird Census is an annual Ocean View Foundation event held on Dec. 26 (traditionally the day that Elizabeth Dickens led the Christmas Bird Counts). This event encourages all who are interested in birds and enjoying the beauty of the Island to spend part of the day keeping tract of the birds they see. The short-term result of the day’s observations is the compilation of an island-wide bird list comprised of the sightings of many citizen scientists. In the long term these annual bird counts continue the work of Elizabeth Dickens and contribute to a much larger body of information.

All levels of participation are encouraged, from watching your bird feeder to traipsing the Island. For details about Community Bird Census see the schedule below.

Feel free to participate as much or as little as you would like.

1. Meet at 9 a.m. at Settlers Rock where a spotting scope will be available for some early morning duck watching and join with others to make a plan for a day of birding.

2. Bird Walk led by Kim Gaffett at a location determined at 9 a.m. based on wind & weather and most recent snow owl sighting.

3. During the middle of the day, participants will employ whatever means desirable to make a list of birds seen that day. The options for making these observations range from taking one or more walks, to watching your bird feeder from the warmth of your house.

4. At 2 P.M. reassemble at the Bethany’s Airport Diner to compare notes and start to compile the list, to revel in the stories of the day, and exchange clues as to where a Snowy Owl may yet be seen that day.

Anyone wishing to call in his or her Block Island observations may call Kim Gaffett at 466-2224.

Here is a poem from islander Nancy Greenaway:


Snowy Owl

Wide-winged whiteness

sensed before seen

swooping soundlessly

under low-lying layers

of quilted cloud gauze


white on gray

white on white

soft on soft


too large to be living and airborne

too white to be worldly and wild


floating unruffled

on drafts of arctic cold


piercing consciousness

not with bill or quill or talon

but with light and motion


avian divinity

spirited from another dimension


penetrating dusk

by force of feathers


— Nancy Walker Greenaway