Cape May Snowy Owls – Arctic Invaders

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Cape May Point, NJ – South Jersey beach goers are being treated to a rare phenomenon this winter.  One or two Snowy Owls are the norm for most winters in New Jersey, but since October, more than 100 sightings of these birds birds have been reported, suggesting that this year’s invasion is one of the largest in recent history.

For the non-birding reader, these birds are the largest owls in North America.  They nest in the vast arctic tundra of Alaska, Canada, Russia, Siberia, and Scandinavia, eating lemmings and other small animals.

But, why are so many Snowy Owls being seen this year along the East Coast?  There are several theories among birders, but the one that makes the most scientific sense suggests that a plentiful food supply of lemmings up in the Arctic tundra this year meant more young Snowy Owls survived.

However, once the snow covered the tundra, the owls couldn’t catch their prey. So, they started migrating southward, looking for new sources of food.

That’s what brought these Arctic invaders to New Jersey, much to local birders’ delight.

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Many of the invading birds are young males, inexperienced at catching food.  Instead of tundra lemmings, the owls are looking for mice, rats, ducks and other birds to round out their winter diet.

Unlike the owls that inhabit Cape May year round, Snowy Owls love wide-open country without trees.  So, the lucky observer will find them along the beach, dunes, and marshes.

Look closely at this photo of the Cape May Point State Park Beach taken in late December.   snowyowl4
Tucked behind a tuft of beach grass is one of the latest Snowies to visit our area.

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Snowy Owls have also been spotted on the Higbee Jetties, Delaware Bay beaches, Stone Harbor Point, Nummy Island and other open beaches and marshes from Sandy Hook to Cape May.

By March or April, the invasion will be over.  Some of the invading Snowy Owls will die, while the hardiest survivors migrate north.

It may be fifty years or more before we see another arctic invasion like the one we are witnessing this winter.

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About Paul Kerlinger

Paul Kerlinger, Ph.D. is a scientist, author and nationally known expert on bird migration. He's done extensive studies on hawks, Snowy Owls and neotropical song birds. Kerlinger is the former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, His books include How Birds Migrate and Flight Strategies of Migrating Hawks. He's an ardent fly fisherman and organic vegetable gardener.