Tag Archive | snowy owls

Winter Lingers On (and on and on…)

Snowy OwlI was really hoping to be blogging about spring by now: about open rivers and flooded fields, about groundhogs emerging from hibernation, about waterfowl and blackbirds and Killdeer and phoebes and warm sunny days. Although we are now over a week past the spring equinox, few signs of spring have appeared in the Ottawa region so far.

Winter has been slow to relinquish its grip this year. Normally we get a few days in mid-March where the temperatures rise to +8 or 10°C, bringing Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Turkey Vultures, Song Sparrows and other early migrants. Sometimes we even see a few overwintering butterflies emerge. That didn’t happen this year. Instead it has remained very cold, with morning temperatures around -15°C or colder, and daytime highs rarely climbing above the freezing mark. We also haven’t had very many days with southerly winds to bring migrating birds north. Although a few migrants have begun to trickle in, only the Ring-billed Gulls seem to be back in good numbers. While I finally saw my first Canada Geese (4) in the half-frozen ponds on Eagleson Road on Monday, I still haven’t seen my first Red-winged Blackbird. Fortunately, the daytime temperatures are finally supposed to rise above 0°C now, so hopefully migration will begin in earnest soon.

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Invasion of the Snowy Owls

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

It’s been said that this winter’s invasion of Snowy Owls is the greatest in 40 years. Large numbers have left the Arctic in search of a safe place to spend the winter; they have been found all across northeastern North America, from Newfoundland to the mid-western US states and even as far south as Florida. Bruce DiLabio, writer of the weekly bird column in the Ottawa Citizen, estimates there are at least 150 Snowy Owls in eastern Ontario alone.

There are two possible reasons for the extremely large movement of Snowy Owls this winter. The first is a scarcity of Arctic lemmings — one of their primary food sources – on their northern breeding grounds. The second is a population boom that has increased the number of birds competing in the same territories for the same food. I suspect it is the latter or a combination of both, for if there was a severe population collapse of lemmings we would probably see large numbers of other birds of prey heading south as well. Continue reading

When Owls and Airplanes Don’t Mix

I was sickened to hear that three Snowy Owls were purposely shot and killed at New York City’s JFK Airport this past weekend. Why? Even though they are protected from trapping and shooting (according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, anyway), they were added to the Port Authority’s list of birds it may kill to protect airplanes from bird strikes after one of them apparently resting (the article uses the term “nesting”) on top of a taxiway sign on a runway got sucked into an airplane turbine. Other birds that have been added to the “kill list” include Canada Geese, Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, Rock Pigeons, American Crows, Double-crested Cormorants (huh?) and Mute Swans. Most of these birds gather together in huge flocks – sometimes consisting of hundreds of thousands of individuals – in the winter and during migration, and are considered pests as a result of the noise and the mess they leave behind. Snowy Owls, on the other hand, usually appear in singly or in small groups, and spend most of their time sitting still, whether on a sign, a rooftop, a treetop or the ground. They blend in so well with the winter landscape that most of the time you wouldn’t even notice if one was around.

Snowy Owl
Ottawa, 2006

This is turning out to be another irruption year, with hundreds of these beautiful white owls flying south in search of a safe, food-rich place to spend the winter. Snowy Owls depend on birds and small mammals to survive, in particular rabbits, hares, squirrels, weasels, mice and voles. As a result, Snowy Owls prefer large, open treeless places in which to hunt. With so many owls moving south again this winter, it is clear that there isn’t enough food up north for all of them. They are going to find it difficult enough to survive as it is without being placed on the Port Authority’s “kill list”, which even wildlife experts don’t understand as the owls “are not part of a large population and they are easy to catch and relocate, unlike seagulls.”

Logan Airport in Massachusetts does exactly that – instead of killing these majestic northern visitors, they capture and relocate them to a safer place. Not only that, but Logan Airport even attaches transmitters to the healthiest birds, helping to contribute to our scientific knowledge about these birds’ movements in irruption years. So if Logan Airport has been able to develop a much more humane and enlightened response to this issue, why can’t the New York Port Authority take a page out of their book instead of condemning the owls to death? The answer: one owl got sucked into an airplane turbine, and someone overreacted.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Many people are sickened and concerned by the way the Port Authority is handling this situation. A petition is taking off on Change.org, asking the Governor to stop shooting the owls and to rethink their approach to Snowy Owls and other birds that visit Metro-Area airports. I urge you to sign and share it with as many of your Facebook friends as you can.

If you have a twitter account, please send a tweet to @NYGovCuomo asking him to follow the lead set by Boston and #saveoursnowyowlsNYC.

If you live in New York State, you may also wish to mail, email, or telephone Governor Cuomo and share your concerns.

When it comes to protecting our wildlife, every voice matters.

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UPDATE: WOW! As I was writing this the Port Authority announced that it is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation in order to relocate snowy owls and to “strike a balance in humanely controlling bird populations at and around the agency’s airports”. What an awesome job by everyone who voiced their concerns!

When Luck meets Birding

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

A successful birding outing depends on two things: knowing where to go, and luck – the kind of luck that comes from being in the right place at the right time. The last time I went birding with Deb, we went to the right places but missed just about every bird we were looking for. There is nothing more discouraging when birding, particularly in the winter when there aren’t many birds around to begin with and there are no butterflies, dragonflies or reptiles to make the outings more interesting.  Too many outings like these and it becomes tempting to put away the binoculars until spring.

Fortunately, Deb and I had the complete opposite experience on Sunday.  It was bitterly cold when we met at 8:00; it was a good thing I didn’t check the temperature before I left home, otherwise the -19°C temperature might have tempted me to stay at home in bed!

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