A Snowy Day at Cape May

Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted February 11, 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

By southern New Jersey standards, it was an absolutely balmy winter day. As we left the parking lot at the south end of Stone Harbor and began our walk to Stone Harbor Point, the car’s thermometer read 53 degrees Fahrenheit. With no wind and the bright sunshine, it was the kind of winter weather that invites a nature walk at Cape May.

The walk can be long and usually cold in February, but, buoyed by the weather and sightings of Harlequin Ducks, Common and King Eiders, a host of scoters, and dozens of Common Loons at Avalon’s 8th Street Jetty just an hour before, our spirits were high.

Yet despite all this, we were still hoping for a Snowy Day.

Scanning for a Snowy Owl

We were not to be disappointed.

At the south end of town, from the observation platform south of the parking area, we scanned with our spotting scopes.

Once, twice, a third time. Something was out of place. There were lots of gulls, some floatsom on the high beach, but one extra lump that didn’t quite add up.

We walked closer, then zoomed our scopes to high power and indeed our hopes for a snowy day were fulfilled.

Snowy Owl on Stone Harbor Point. Photo by Clay and Pat Sutton.

On a small tussock of beach grass, the “lump” turned its head and blinked – a Snowy Owl, one of the ultimate finds for the wintertime naturalist.

Good Winter for Snowy Owls

It is indeed a Snowy winter on the Jersey Coast.

We are enjoying one of the best Snowy Owl incursions in memory. There have been dozens of sightings, spread from Liberty State Park south to Cape May and Cumberland Counties. At least two individuals have been sighted at Stone Harbor Point dating back to mid-December – a lightly-patterned young male and a darkly barred immature female Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl in Cumberland County, January 2009 – photo by Clay and Pat Sutton.

Just a month ago, we saw a Snowy Owl sitting on the ice at Bivalve (on the Maurice River in Cumberland County) and they have also been seen at Fortescue on the shore of the Delaware Bay.

The Search for Food

Snowy Owls nest in the high arctic, raising their large broods on the barren arctic tundra far from man, often right on the edge of the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean pack ice. They feed on a variety of prey, but are usually well sustained by lemmings, a small rodent that can be abundant on the barren tundra.

Lemmings, however, are a cyclical food source, and the Snowy Owl’s world is a classic one of feast or famine. Lemming populations can “crash” and then Snowy Owls are forced to emigrate to find food.

Many or most move south – but more in a nomadic way than the classic migration we associate with most birds.

Their search for food can carry them many miles, indeed several thousand miles, south. And it is the winters that follow the boom that will produce a surfeit of Snowy Owls for watchers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic States.

Looks like Home

When Snowy Owl invasions occur, the owls invariably select habitat that is similar to their high arctic tundra homeland. Vast open areas are preferred – grassland, prairie, farmland, and airports.

On the Atlantic Coast, the expansive saltmarshes surrounding our estuaries and bays provide the open, ideal hunting grounds Snowy Owls prefer. They particularly love our barrier beaches, where open vistas and abundant prey provide ideal opportunities.

For a Snowy Owl, food is almost anything that is available and at least a tad smaller: birds up to the size of a Clapper Rail, mallard, or Brant, and mammals such as muskrats, Eastern Cottontail Rabbits (abundant on barrier islands), mice, and voles.

A little mentioned fact is that Norway Rats are common around marshes, beaches, bulkheads, and boardwalks, and rats are no doubt a prime nocturnal staple for Snowys.

How to Find a Snowy Owl

To find a Snowy Owl, diligently search beaches and dunes.

On the coastal wetlands check Osprey nest platforms, duck blinds, and channel markers. Near any beach or bay, scan rooftops, telephone poles, and light standards.

Snowy Owl on Beach Ave., Cape May January 2006

Over years past we have seen Snowy Owls sitting on the dunes at Cape May Point State Park and the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, twice on rooftops on Beach Drive in Cape May City, and on the beach of the Two Mile Beach Unit of the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge.

We have found them on the beach in North Wildwood, Champagne Island, Stone Harbor Point, and Avalon. One winter a Snowy Owl perched every late afternoon on the Avalon Water Tower.

Late afternoon is the best time to look. While Snowys can and will hunt during the day, they are a classic crepuscular species – becoming active in the dim light near dusk. At Island Beach State Park, we once watched a Snowy Owl (on-and-off) throughout the day. Active at sunrise, it soon went to sit in the dunes – “hiding” and inactive all day.

But as the sun neared the horizon at day’s end, the owl became active again, flying about and beginning its “dusk patrol.”

Stone Harbor Point

This month, at Stone Harbor Point, we left the observation platform and walked south along the beach. We stopped a safe 250 yards short of the Snowy Owl so as not to disturb it and enjoyed it through our scope.

Photo: Clay and Pat Sutton

As the sun lowered in the west, the owl became alert, its head spinning around. It regurgitated a pellet, then flew just inches over the sand towards a nearby mudflat. A flock of Brant panicked and flushed. Brant too nest in the high arctic, and although the Snowy was out of its normal winter range, they recognized this formidable predator all too well.

The owl alighted on the mudflat and began to preen, facing the last of the setting sun over the far salt marsh horizon.

We began the long walk back to the car. Even though warm and calm, it was still a highly enjoyable Snowy Day at Cape May.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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