ASSATEAGUE — For the last few weeks, local residents and visitors to beaches in Maryland and Delaware have reported the rare sightings of Snowy Owls, and scientists are hoping to get a better understanding of the anomaly.
Snowy Owl sightings in increasing numbers have been reported on beaches from Assateague to Indian River essentially since Thanksgiving, providing beachgoers and bird watchers with a rather rare opportunity to see up close and in person the large, beautiful white and brown birds. Their visit is called an “irruption” in scientific terms, and while irruptions are fairly common for many species of migratory birds, the current irruption of Snowy Owls in the local area has been particularly noteworthy.
“This is definitely an irruption year,” said Assateague Island National Seashore Scientific Communicator Kelly Taylor this week. “In a nutshell, something is driving these birds out of their typical migration pattern and pushing them in a different direction, which is why they are showing up here.”
Taylor said the cause of the irruption of Snowy Owls in the local area this late fall and early winter is under investigation, but there is no real reason for concern.
“Just because they have suddenly shown up here doesn’t necessarily suggest that something is bad,” she said. “There is a scientific reason for it. It could be a lack of food along their normal migration routes, or other natural factors. We’re looking into it, but it doesn’t mean something is out of order.”
Taylor said in most years there are irruptions of other migratory birds on Assateague and other beach habitats along the mid-Atlantic but they go largely unnoticed to non-scientists and non-bird watchers because they aren’t as readily visible or recognized. Standing about two feet tall and about four pounds and densely covered with white feathers and brown markings, the Snowy Owls easily standout along the local winter landscape. It doesn’t hurt that the iconic birds have been featured in books and movie series such as Harry Potter, for example.
“It’s a rare winter when we have no species irrupting in our area,” she said. “What makes this so special is that the Snowy Owls are what we refer to as charismatic mega-fauna. They are huge and beautiful and rarely seen by the public in their natural habitat. They are really amazing.”
Taylor said the Snowy Owls are largely nocturnal, but during the current irruption on Assateague and other beach areas along the mid-Atlantic coast they have been readily visible.
“They are nocturnal, but because they are migrating and are likely in search of food, they have been seen often in recent weeks along the beaches,” she said. “They are big, personable birds and they do what they want and when they want.”
Taylor said scientists have been able to attach what are essentially tracking devices on some of the Snowy Owls that are visiting the area, which could provide some insight into how they ended up here and where they might be headed next.
“Scientists have fitted some of the Snowy Owls with tracking devices that basically look like little backpacks,” she said. “Using the devices, they hope to be able to identify the reason for this current irruption. What makes them unique is that because they are for birds, they are very small and very light. They are solar-powered, which is pretty neat. Sometimes, you might see a sika deer on the island with a tracking device that is like a battery-powered collar, but the batteries eventually wear out. With these solar-powered devices on the owls, they should stay powered for a long time.”