2013-12-13 / Front Page

Snowy owls make Maine entrance

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer


Snowy owls, which breed in the Arctic, like to survey the land from high places. (Marie Jordan courtesy photo) Snowy owls, which breed in the Arctic, like to survey the land from high places. (Marie Jordan courtesy photo) SOUTHERN MAINE – A snowy owl irruption in southern Maine has got bird watchers turning their heads.

In past weeks, sightings of the bird, which is native to the Arctic region, have increased so much that enthusiasts planned a coordinated effort to survey how many snowy owls could be seen across the state in one day. Members of the Maine Birds Google Groups listserve looked out in all directions on Sunday, Dec. 8 and compiled and shared their sightings with each other.

“This is the most I have ever been aware of and I have been birding steadily for 25 years … I have never seen so many of them and they have never been so easy to spot,” said Marie Jordan of South Portland.

Jordan said the birds breed in the Arctic, but spread out over larger geographical ranges when there are changes in the population of lemmings, small rodents that are a primary food source. Jordan said either an abundance or dearth of lemmings can cause snowy owls to move into new territory. If lemmings are abundant, owls reproduce in large numbers and the younger generations of chicks have to find new territory. If the lemming population drops, the owls may seek new places to find food.


Snowy owls have been spotted in southern Maine in past weeks. The Arctic is their breeding ground and they prefer large flat areas such as beaches and marshes along Maine’s coast. Owls have been spotted recently near Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth. (Marie Jordan courtesy photo) Snowy owls have been spotted in southern Maine in past weeks. The Arctic is their breeding ground and they prefer large flat areas such as beaches and marshes along Maine’s coast. Owls have been spotted recently near Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth. (Marie Jordan courtesy photo) This year the owls have been sighted as far south as New Jersey and North Carolina. Jordan said snowy owls in Maine are being most frequently sighted in the Biddeford Pool area, around Mile Stretch Road and Wood Island Road. She saw a blizzard of three snowy owls there on Dec. 8 feeding in the same area, and guesses there are probably at least nine or 10 living there. Jordan said people need to be cautious when watching the owls.


Bird watcher Marie Jordan caught a picture of this snowy owl in flflight at Biddeford Pool after it was disturbed by encroaching observers. Jordan said people should keep their distance, because flflying more than is necessary can stress the owls out. (Marie Jordan courtesy photo) Bird watcher Marie Jordan caught a picture of this snowy owl in flflight at Biddeford Pool after it was disturbed by encroaching observers. Jordan said people should keep their distance, because flflying more than is necessary can stress the owls out. (Marie Jordan courtesy photo) “It is important for people to know that they are under stress and should not be disturbed. Observe them from a good distance,” Jordan said. “Every time they fly, they are under stress.”

Jordan said she noticed people at Biddeford Pool getting too close to an owl, causing it to fly away.

“They need to conserve their energy for hunting and to maintain their fat levels,” Jordan said. “It puts them at risk because their food supply here is not all that great.”

Snowy owls will eat any kind of small rodents, including deer mice, rats, moles and squirrels. Erin Burns, wildlife specialist at York Center for Wildlife, said a man recently captured a snowy owl in his backyard because the bird seemed unable to fly.

“He found it in his backyard crying out on the ground, flying short distances and not getting any higher,” Burns said. “I thought it was unusual that he could catch it.”

Ken Rice said his daughter discovered the bird in the woods behind property he owns on Lincoln Street in Saco,.

Rice investigated and saw that it couldn’t fly away and kept flying into bushes. He managed to get a blanket wrapped around it to protect him from its talons, and then placed it in a pet carrying cage.

The snowy owl was brought to the center, where a blood and fecal analysis was done. In the end, the bird appeared to be in good health and specialists could not find anything wrong with it.

“Maybe it was just exhausted because it had migrated here from the Arctic,” Burns said.

The center held the bird for six days; after the first day, it was already flying around in a 100-foot enclosure. Burns said people are encouraged to call the center before taking action if they think they see a snowy owl that is ill or injured. A gentleman had called recently, concerned that there was a snowy owl that was hunting in the daytime and was spending all of its time on the ground, and seemed to have blood coming out of its mouth. Burns said the owls are used to hunting during the day because in the Arctic, it is daytime for months at a time. There are also not any trees in the Arctic, so the owls are used to spending much of their time on the ground. The blood, Burns said, was probably from a fresh kill. After talking with the caller, eventually the owl flew off, apparently in good health. Because their natural habitat is the Arctic, the snowy owls prefer large plains and marshes, or areas where the land is spread out over great distances. They like to get good vantage points from high ledges and, because of this, Jordan said they are often spotted perched on the roofs of houses.

Airports have become attractive areas for snowy owls, but they have not been met with a warm reception. On Saturday, Dec. 7, three snowy owls at the JFK airport in New York were shot and killed by Port Authority wildlife specialists after one owl became sucked in the turbine of a plane. In Boston, experts have baited, trapped and relocated owls from Logan Airport for several years. Officials from the Portland International Jetport could not be reached in time for the Courier’s deadline to comment on whether snowy owls have presented any problems this year.

On Dec. 7, the owl that was captured at a Saco residence was released back into the wild from the advantageous height of Mount Agamenticus in Wells. “We thought it would be a good place because snowy owls like to be able to see across distances and be near the ocean,” Burns said.

Rice traveled to Mount Agamenticus with his daughter and two grandsons to witness the bird’s return to nature.

After it was released, the owl flew toward the ocean, visible in flight for about five minutes.

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