My View

Mary Parker Sonis: Arctic traveler

January 26, 2014 

We have all seen the photos in the news. The Snowy Owls have arrived from the tundra, and we are witnessing the largest irruption in the past 50 years.

Most times it is hard for non-birders to appreciate the arrival of an unusual avian from some far off locale, but this is no LBJ (little brown jobbie). This is the legendary Snowy Owl, the largest, heaviest owl in North America.

Prior to this grand irruption, the last Snowy Owl recorded in North Carolina arrived in 2001 at Fort Fisher. There have been approximately 20 intrepid owls that have made the journey all the way to North Carolina, and no one has ascertained the exact reason.

The Snowy Owl favors stretches of land that resemble home. They breed in the vast treeless domain of the Arctic tundra and are unfamiliar with a forest environment. From high in the air, an airport runway or huge stretch of coastal dune looks like tundra to this ground nesting owl.

It is thought that the spring of 2013 was a good breeding year for the owls. There were enough lemmings on the tundra to support a large number of nestlings, but when they all came of age to leave the nest, they had to migrate to find a territory where food was sufficient. Snowy Owls are wanderers, and often travel long distances in winter, supplementing their regular lemming diet with ducks and waterfowl along the coasts of the Arctic. It is hoped that our local owls will be able to survive on the plentiful waterfowl of the outer banks.

Life begins for the Snowy in a harsh, unforgiving environment. In May, the female looks for a suitable nesting place. She looks for a slightly raised area on the ground. She may choose a depression on rock ledge, or an elevated bit of land known as a pingaluk. This is simply a rise in the ground where the frost below has forced the ground to expand upwards.

She will create a scrape, or minor depression on this frost heave and then line this depression with a bit of grass or moss, perhaps a feather or two. Sometimes the scrape is left entirely bare. The Snowy lays her eggs every other day, but commences brooding the eggs quite early. If lemmings are plentiful, she will lay as many as 11 to 13 eggs, but she may lay as few as three eggs in a lean year. The nestlings hatch in approximately 32 days.

The female does the brooding, while the male protects the nest from predation, and provides food. Even before a single egg has hatched, the male Snowy has been stockpiling a circular ring of rodents around the scrape. In photos, it looks as if the nest is wearing a huge collar of fur, arranged in a tidy circle. The parents are fiercely protective of the young owls, but the mortality rate for young nestlings is very high. It is easy for a nestling to wander, or fall off the pingaluk and perish on the ground or be eaten by predators such as Arctic foxes, or Skuas. Husky dogs have been known to eat the eggs of Snowy Owls, but in most cases the Snowy parents are quite capable of defending their nest with brutal attacks to the head and eyes of the intruder. The Snowy will also use diversion to draw a predator away from a nest, feigning a broken wing.

The female feeds the young torn pieces of meat while they are young. During this period of time her neat bib of white is often stained by blood from this task. After reaching adulthood, a Snowy will consume any prey up to the size of a small rabbit by swallowing it whole, headfirst in a series of large gulps.

Nestlings are cared for by their parents throughout the summer, and then in fall, the family will disperse, and the young owls will attempt to establish their own territory. When the immature Snowys wandered far south in record numbers. I knew this might be the one chance in my life to see one in the wild.

I thought this would be an easy task. It was not to be. When I arrived in Hatteras, the owl reported there had been seen that very day, but I walked for hours in the wrong direction. I doubled back, and got a call that the Snowy had been seen at another ramp on the beach. Mike Cowal generously came out to pick us up and bring us to the bird in his four-wheel drive. By the time we arrived, the owl had been disturbed by a group of gulls, and had taken off only minutes before. The wind was picking up, and whipping us so hard that my clothes were flapping like a luffing jib. The owl had disappeared somewhere behind the endless stretch of dune, and it was getting dark.

I was disappointed, and thought I had missed my chance, but then the owls arrived on Ocracoke. Another trip on January 1, and another failure. This time, I did not walk far enough. The Snowy was tucked down by the flats that day.

Last weekend I took my third trip to the beach, and with the help of noted Ocracoke birder Peter Vankevich, I saw the owl. She sat hunkered down, high on a dune. I was sitting in Pete’s four-wheel drive at the time, and I started taking pictures while still in the car, fearing that with any approach, she might disappear behind the dunes.

She sat in her characteristic forward-leaning squat, and she was as beautiful as I had imagined her. In the far distance, she looked charcoal colored, but through the lens you could see the black and brown bar markings against the pure white of her face and bib. Her feet were splayed wide, and so thoroughly covered in feathers that it looked as if she was wearing huge snowshoes. She swiveled her head in the direction of the beach, and we saw those eyes – not just yellow, but glowing lemon yellow.

There we all stood quietly for the next two hours. There were spotting scopes, binoculars, and cameras brought out, and we watched her preen, stretch, and yawn her way through the day. When she took a brief turnaround walk, her steps were an ungainly waddle, as if she had a hard time managing those enormous feet. She was resting but alert. No one harassed her, or approached too closely. She was treated as a visiting dignitary.

The distance from Nord du Quebec to Ocracoke is 1,237 miles, and for all we know, the Ocracoke owl (one of two on the island) may have traveled even farther. The Ocracokers have embraced both the human and avian newcomers to their beautiful island. Families offer you a ride when they see you walking the beach, and Peter Vankovich has taken on the formidable task of escorting anyone to the dunes that wishes to see the owls.

Was it worth three trips to the beach to see a bird? Yes…absolutely!

When she swiveled her head and gazed straight at you on that chill Ocracoke dune, you felt the presence of a survivor. It was as if you could actually see her will to live against all odds. These southernmost birds are the birds that have the slimmest chance for survival. They have traveled farther; they have gone without food longer than any of their kind.

Somehow, on tiny Ocracoke Island, the owls have found temporary refuge. We cannot help them, but we wish the travelers all good fortune.

Mary Sonis is a writer, photographer and naturalist in Carrboro. You can contact her at msonis@nc.rr.com

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