Snowy Owl  Photos by Don Reimer
Snowy Owl Photos by Don Reimer
For many of us, there is something very appealing about owls. Maybe it's their enormous round eyes and upright stance that somehow remind us of miniature people. Myriad children's story books and stuffed owl toys attest to their widespread popularity. And one of the most majestic owl species is certainly the Snowy Owl.

It has been an exceptional winter for these white wanderers across the entire northern tier of the U.S. As is often the case, food is the motivating factor in these incursions. Linked to cyclical declines in lemming and vole populations in Arctic regions, hordes of starving owls shift down into Canada and the northern states every three to five years. Remarkably, Snowy Owls have even occurred on Bermuda in the past and on Hawaii this winter.

The Snowy Owl is the largest and heaviest of the owls, with a solid, sturdy build. Weights range from 3½ up to 6 pounds for the larger-bodied females. Thick feathers extend down the legs to the talons, and a protective bristly moustache covers the bill. With an insulated undercoat of downy body feathers, these day-hunting owls are well suited to frigid habitats where winter temperatures can reach -80 degrees Fahrenheit.

In mid-May, Snowies nest on the ground, where the females typically lay seven to eight eggs. Since a single egg is produced every two to five days, the female must start incubating the first egg to prevent its freezing. Through this protracted egg-laying scheme, there are lags between hatching times and huge size differences among the developing chicks. In years of drastic food shortages, these owls reduce their clutch of eggs to match the existing local conditions.
Although generally white in color, there is great variation among individual owls, depending on their sex and age. Many of Maine's Snowies are immature birds with varying degrees of brownish barring on the belly and darker spotted patterns on the wings. Some young females wear a halo of barred feathers on the crown of the head. Mature owls tend to be much whiter, with adult males being the whitest. In all age groups, however, the face is always white.

I was fortunate to see two Snowy Owls this winter. My photo bird had hung around the Rockland Breakwater for a couple of weeks and occasionally sat on the peak of the breakwater light. The lighthouse may have provided a safe overnight perch, and the breakwater is always a bonus location to hunt rodents. The owl also spent some time around Samoset's golf course.

These vagrant owls favor habitats similar to their tundra environment, including open terrain such as seaside beaches, dunes, barrens and airports. Teeming with rodents, the side runways at Boston's Logan Airport are a mecca for winter owls. Since their presence can pose a danger to air traffic, Mass Audubon researcher Norm Smith has trapped, banded and relocated 380 airport owls since 1981. Tiny radio transmitters attached to several of these birds have helped to trace their amazing continental journeys.

Here in Maine, Snowies may venture onto small grass-covered bay islands close to shore. At other times they visit offshore to sites such as Monhegan and Vinalhaven, where two birds have lingered for several weeks. Since breeding begins in their second year of life, these immature owls may remain here into April.