The Snowy Owl Quest

At the beginning of the winter birding season a matter of some speculation among the birding community is what northern-based species might come to visit. Will we get an irruption of finches, either common redpolls or pine siskins? How about a sighting of that superb hunter of the Arctic tundra, a gyrfalcon? Any of these showing up would be big news.

Last year birders in the Hanover area were given a rare opportunity to see a great gray owl. This stealthy hunter rarely ventures down this far from its boreal habitat. When one was seen in the Velvet Rocks area at the beginning of February, it sent birders off into the woods in hopes a sighting. A few lucky individuals did, but it eluded many others including me.

Without question this year’s big story is the extensive incursion of snowy owls into New England and beyond. Another Arctic Circle species that only occasionally appears in our area, snowy owls have been sighted in record numbers throughout the eastern U.S. with sightings reported as far south as Virginia. There is considerable debate about what has caused this year’s irruption – climate change, an overly successful nesting season, an overabundance of food -- but whatever the cause, we are the luckier for it.

Unfortunately, if you want to see a snowy owl, and it is well worth the effort to see one of these magnificent birds, you likely will have to head to the NH coast. Only one sighting of a snowy has been reported in the Upper Valley. That was two weeks ago near Hinsdale, and it has not been reported since. There have, however, been numerous sighting reported from the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) north to Biddeford Pool in Maine. Recent reports show snowy sightings in Rye, Hampton and Seabrook.

I had my big snowy owl outing this past New Year’s Day. I traveled to Biddeford Pool with my wife Nancy, my sister and brother-in-law drawn by reports of as many as eight snowy owls sighted there. We were not disappointed. Within five minutes of arriving we saw our first perched on a house’s chimney. A quarter mile farther up the road we saw our second. It was standing in marsh grass near the water’s edge. Our third followed shortly thereafter observed sitting on the house’s deck railing. This one seemed unperturbed by the ruckus it was causing. It sat unmoving no more than 20 yards from a crowd of perhaps 15 people most of whom were firing away with their cameras.

If you decide to go, it is a good idea to check for updates. NH Audubon in Concord (603-224-9909) is a good source for the NH Coast. For the northern Massachusetts beaches, call the Parker River NWR in Newburyport, MA (978-465-5753).

Snowy Owl at Biddeford Pool, ME -- Nancy Allison/Lyme

Snowy Owl at Biddeford Pool, ME -- Nancy Allison/Lyme

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