Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Snowy Owls Are Finding Diverse Prey
February 22, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     The snowy owl show continues on Plum Island, Salisbury Beach State Reservation, and other areas along the coast. They have “invaded” well beyond Massachusetts, with reported sighting all over the country. Birds have even been reported from the Gulf states. 

     The numbers of snowy owls here in Massachusetts have been the most that I can remember in my fifty years of birding. I have seen twenty or more in Essex County in one day. Fifteen snowy owls have been observed at once at Logan Airport in Boston. They have even shown up further inland in central and western parts of the state. Usually seen in coastal dunes and marshes, snowy owls have been seen in Cambridge as well as in downtown Springfield!

     Such a flight of owls into our area raises many questions. Friend and fellow birder Brian Cassie was curious about what these owls were eating while they were here and he posed the question on the Massbird list serve. This week, he posted some of his findings based on the responses that he received, which I thought that you might find interesting. Brian wrote:

     “In this winter of the Snowy Owl, there have been reports of hundreds of these northern owls passing through and/or setting up winter territories in the Northeast. We have been presented with outstanding and perhaps unprecedented opportunities to observe, photograph, and study Snowy Owls. I asked the Massbird community to contribute any observations or photographs of Snowy Owls killing and/or eating prey as a small step in understanding one aspect of the owls winter behavior.

     “I received a good number of responses from my online requests (thank you all) and present the information below. It can be shared with whichever audience wants it. Most of the records are from Massachusetts but they range geographically from southern Maine to coastal New Jersey.

     “Prey observed being killed by a Snowy Owl : Barn Owl (1), Meadow Vole (3)

     “Prey (dead) observed or photographed in the grasp of an owl: Northern Gannet (1), American Bittern (1), American Coot (1), Herring Gull (1), unidentified gull (2), Sanderling (1), American Black Duck (2), Common Eider (2), Bufflehead (2). Harlequin Duck (1), unidentified duck (3), Meadow Vole (2), Eastern Cottontail (2), Norway Rat (1), unidentified medium-sized mammal(1)

     “Prey body parts found in Snowy Owl pellets : Meadow Vole (3), unidentified small rodent (5), unidentified bird (3)

     “Prey items found (along with pellet) on elevated mounds habitually used by Snowy Owl at golf course : Horned Grebe (four feet), Bufflehead (two wings), unidentified feathers

     “Prey found at presumed Snowy Owl kill site (no owl present at the time but site within owl’s territory): Long-tailed Duck (tail feather and other feathers)

     “A Snowy Owl, strongly smelling of skunk and presumed to have gotten that way by killing a skunk, was found dead In MA.

     “Other dead birds or parts thereof were reported, mostly along the coast, but there was no direct evidence of Snowy Owls being responsible. “

     Brian reports an interesting diversity of prey that these owls are taking. They are apparently under pressure to find more diverse food sources other than their usual arctic diet of lemmings. Enjoy these arctic treasures while they are here, but please observe/photograph them from a safe distance so as not to disturb them. They don’t need to be stressed further by human disturbance. If they take flight, then you are much too close. If you want to get closer, do so only through binoculars, spotting scope, or a long-lens camera. Maybe you will identify their latest prey. At the very least, you will definitely see more detail, enjoy them more, and you can observed their more natural behavior.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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