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In today’s electronically connected world, breaking news gets disseminated at mind boggling speeds, emails are read and responded to immediately and even seemingly old fashioned hobbies like birding have evolved into sophisticated, tight-knit communities of very connected people exchanging information at lightening speeds. Wednesday morning’s Snowy Owl on a rooftop in our own neighborhood of Berwyn was discovered by a single birder whose excitement spread like wild fire through the birding community of Chester County. Emails were shot out and hasty calls were made to birding friends , breakfast was skipped, business meetings were delayed, birders called in sick to work for the morning, and even non-birders caught the sparks of excitement and wanted to see the “Harry Potter Owl”.
Within less than an hour of the sighting over eight local birders were on the scene gazing breathlessly through binoculars at this rare six and half pound visitor from the arctic tundra, the embodiment of a wild world where life comes simply one day at a time, surroundings are austere and uncluttered and the only schedule to answer to is that of the polar sun.
The Snowy Owl was in the Willistown Conservation Trust’s program area, so we were proud to add it to our 2013 Species Seen List. As this year comes to a close, feel free to report to us any bird species you see that are not already on our list!
The southward invasion of these large white owls with five foot wingspans has only just begun for this winter and already reports have been popping up all over the state: one in Berks County, one in Lancaster County, a few in Centre County, two in Lebanon County, five or so in Erie County at Presque Isle State park, one at the Philadelphia airport at the southern end of the Girard Point Bridge and then the one that showed up this week right here in Berwyn on Whitehorse road! Most of these birds were sitting on top of roofs, on fence posts, on utility poles or just right on the ground in the middle of fields or dunes. As the largest owl in North America and a denizen of the open tundra, the Snowy is quite conspicuous and not accustomed to hiding anywhere. So keep your eyes peeled!
If you do happen to spot a Snowy Owl (and not just a white grocery bag way out in a field), you should immediately report it to eBird, which is amassing one of the largest biodiversity databases in the world and revolutionizing the way birders, ornithologists, educators, and conservationists distribute and share information about bird populations. Reporting bird sightings is easy; just set up an account and you’re ready to report your incidental checklist. With eBird, you can explore all kinds of data like range maps for specific species. For example, if you wanted to discover all the locations near you where Snowy Owls have been sighted this winter so far, you would type the search terms into this map http://ebird.org/ebird/map/ .
Click here to see an up-to-date sightings map of Snowy Owls in PA this winter. Zoom in with your mouse and click on the points for specific location information. Also be sure to check the box on the right that says, “Show Points Sooner,” if you want to see actual points instead of purple blobs. Zooming out will reveal that the Snowy Owls have also been appearing in southern Canadian Provinces, New England, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and even one in Bermuda! Newfoundland is seeing an astounding 150 Snowy Owls at once!
While you are chasing down these regal visitors and enjoying their beauty this winter, keep in mind that these owls flew an incredibly long distance from the arctic to get here. The reason they are here is because a lack of food (primarily small rodents called lemmings) up north drove them to migrate south. The theory behind the invasion is that the lemming population was actually booming this summer and consequently the owls had many young. Once this surplus of hungry owlets becomes a surplus of huge adult owls at the end of the breeding season, lemmings become scarce again and the owls (many hatch years) are forced south for food. We have no way of knowing if the owls we are happily viewing are starving to death, which is a very real possibility as some of the young typically do not survive their first winter. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that birders enjoy these birds from a distance so as not to disturb them and cause them to fly off, expending extra vital energy they are trying to conserve.
An invasion like this occurred in 2011, but the brunt of it was in the Pacific Northwest and Great Plains. The Northeast U.S. and Atlantic Coast did not see the numbers then that they are seeing this winter, presumably because this year’s owls originate from the Eastern Arctic and Greenland rather than the central or western Arctic as in 2011. Read more about this year’s and 2011’s invasion in the eBird article here.
Snowy Owl males are almost all white, while juvenile females have heavy dark barring all over. Adult females and juvenile males fall somewhere in between in terms of amount of black bars on their plumage.
Check out these website articles to see more photos and learn more about the Snowy Owl and this year’s invasion (also known as an irruption):
GoErie.com (this one also has a video link of one of the Snowy Owls in Erie)
Nemesisbird.com (for the 2013-14 Snowy Owl Irruption Watch)
wctbirds.com (an article I wrote in February 2012 about my first Snowy Owl experience)
And for all of you out there who have experienced the gut-wrenching, sinking feeling in your stomach when you realized that that heart-racing, big white owl-ish looking thing in the middle of the field was just a grocery bag, there’s even a website for you to report your stories of defeat and photos of things you thought were Snowy Owls. It’s pretty funny. Check it out here : “That’s Not a Snowy Owl”.
A fellow PA birder reminded me that Snowy Owls are a great species for getting people hooked on birding, especially children! Here are a bunch of links of fantastic Snowy Owl resources that he suggested for kids (and kids at heart!):
National Wildlife Federation Kids (Ranger Rick pages)
Review of Snowy Owls: WHooo Are They? (Children’s Book)
National Geographic Kids (Creature Feature)
Nature: Magic of the Snowy Owl (DVD. You can also watch online at PBS Nature)
Look for Snowy Owls and Ducks at the Willistown Conservation Trust’s second annual Duck Hunt
(with binoculars and scopes)
tomorrow December 7, from 8-11am. Still Spots Left!
Contact me if interested (Blake Goll, email@example.com). We will meet at the Rushton Farm Parking lot on Delchester Road and then drive around Willistown touring the ponds and lakes for migrant waterfowl like the Hooded Mergansers pictured above, and of course Snowy Owls! You never know what surprises a morning of birding may bring.
There’s a lot going on in the woods,
We were rained out of the banding station every day this week until Thursday, but it was worth the wait. The past two mornings were chilly, foggy and gray, but the nets were hot, the woods and fields were alive with song, and the catch was colorful!
Here’s a quick list of highlights and new (for the year) species banded this week:
- 34 birds banded on Thursday, including 8 recaptures
- 51 birds banded today, including 6 recaptures
- Wood Thrush
- Indigo Bunting
- Baltimore Oriole
- Magnolia Warbler
- Black and White Warbler
- Common Yellowthroat
- Chestnut-Sided Warbler
- Black-throated Blue Warbler
- Swamp Sparrow
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird (not banded)
- Willow Flycatcher
- One net was closed for the season (to be relocated next week) because of proximity to an active fox den !
- We placed 3 more bluebird boxes at Rushton!
- We heard Scarlet Tanagers, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and American Redstarts (all of which evaded the nets)
Hope to see you at Rushton next week! We will band as usual on Tuesday and Thursday morning, sunrise until 11am, unless it rains.
We arrived in Cumberland County last Saturday just after 2 pm. The sky was overcast but the sun still managed to cast a soft golden glow over the rugged landscape. A cold, stern wind tore relentlessly across the bare corn fields and scattered rocky outcroppings. Ignoring the pungent smell of freshly spread manure, upon closing my eyes I could imagine I was in the unforgiving arctic landscape, alone in the wilderness in search of two precious yellow diamonds in the snow.
As we approached the intersection of Mud Level and Duncan Roads, my heart skipped a beat (and I began yawning a lot- presumably my brain trying to prepare my car-cramped body for the chase!) I began excitedly scanning the barren fields for the ghostly figure we were seeking while watching the road ahead for a caravan of birders parked on the side of the road, Yellowstone-style. Suddenly, there it was! A blazing white figure in the middle of the umber colored field. Deftly snapping my binoculars up to my eyes, I could just make out the…”Oh,” I sighed as my heart sank. “It’s just a plastic bag.”
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for my hope to be restored. Just around a bend in the flat road were a hoard of cars parked askew and eager birders perched against the wooden fence with all array of scopes, camera equipment, digiscope adapters and binoculars. We parked along the road and cast our binoculars in the direction of everyone else’s, and much to our wondering eyes did appear but a miniature white figure in the treeless distance! Less than 1/4 mile away sat a living glimpse into the arctic tundra.
Looking through the scope brought the creature’s stoic majesty into clear focus. A pure white cloak draped over two feet of muscle and bone. Aside from the quick movements of his neck as he often and mindfully inspected his alien surroundings, he was as still and silent as the polar night as he sat in solitude. The wild yellow diamonds in his snow-white face pierced my soul as he scrutinized me several times from afar, probably seeing the details of my face as well as I was seeing his through the scope. It felt as though he was reading more than just the details of my face. The intimacy and severity of his gaze stirred something unfamiliar in my core, awakened some wild ancient sense, connected me to the earth’s energy beneath my feet, and somehow made me more aware and compassionate of the human lives around me. As I breathed in the cold sharp winter, I imagined inhaling the elemental exhale of the owl… inhaling truth, light, serenity and life. I was renewed by the reflection of those rare yellow diamonds and a breath of the arctic, of all that is pure and beautiful and sad and terrifying.
The owl stretched out his long wing once and we could see his power. Then he opened his beak while tenderly preening his luscious coat of feathers, and we glimpsed his vulnerability in the bright pink of his mouth.
As we were heading back to the car, the sun’s rays broke through the somber clouds for a peaceful moment of satisfaction and gratitude. We gazed back at the Snowy Owl, now bathed in the beauty of the light, and I found it hard to fathom that the comfort of the sun’s rays is something this bird does not know for weeks on end. What is the light and the hope that carries him through the days of dark? Perhaps that is the secret behind his mysterious yellow eyes…Perhaps they are enigmatic pools of stored sunlight eternally preserved as yellow diamonds in snow.
If you’d like to have your own once-in-a-lifetime Snowy Owl experience be sure to track the local sightings on the PA Birding List website. This is also a great place to go to discover other interesting and sometimes rare bird sightings (especially in winter) in PA. You’ll find that the PA birding community is quite an avid fellowship; with at least a dozen birders posting on the site everyday, this is certainly the place to go for up-to- the -minute updates.
Unfortunately, much to the frustration of birders all over the state, the latest postings on this listserv (Feb 2) reveal that a “birder” with an attitude of entitlement waltzed into the Cumberland County cornfield and approached the Snowy owl at a disrespectfully close distance. The owl, which had been sitting there peacefully for the past month, took off into the distance and has not been seen since. This is a real shame for all the birders who may never get a chance to see the owl again, or any Snowy Owl for that matter. Even more grievous is the fact that the bird was forced to expend extra energy and endure added stress in now having to locate a new field in which to feed for the remainder of this winter.
Disturbing these long distance migrants is a BIG NO NO since the reason they are here in the first place is often starvation. Hunger caused by unpredictable or unreliable food sources is what draws them south from their northern haunts in the first place. Birders are encouraged to enjoy the birds from a respectful distance but should always be mindful not to crowd the bird and thus force it to use energy it does not have.
New birders are always welcome to the ‘sport’, but it is their responsibility to inform themselves of the rules and code of ethics as they would with any other sport. The American Birding Association has a nice summary of birding ethics, which is handy for all bird lovers to have at their fingertips.
This Snowy Owl invasion, which is the biggest documented in the entire history of ornithology, has been causing quite a stir all over the nation. The reason for so many Snowy Owls coming south from the Arctic this winter is an abundance of lemmings (their favorite food) this past summer on the tundra breeding grounds, which led to greater breeding success for the owls (each adult pair had about 6 young fledge instead of the usual 2). Once winter arrived, the abundance of full-grown baby owls (plus adults) created heavy competition for food; the younger owls get displaced by the more established adults and must then move south for the winter. When food becomes abundant in the arctic with the coming of summer, the young will move back north.
Check out the National News report on the Snowy Owl invasion if you haven’t already seen it: http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/reaction-to-snowy-owl-wow/6r90mfg?from. And here is a nice eBird article on the Snowy phenomenon.
If you were planning on going to see the Cumberland County Snowy, don’t lose hope! There is one even closer. On February 1st, this picture was taken of a Snowy at the Northeast Airport in Philly. Perhaps he likes the company of the cone…
Of course, you can still head out to Cumberland County to see the Townsend’s Warbler at 1133 Pine Rd, Carlisle PA. The homeowner is a very kind man who allows birders on his property to see the warbler, which regularly darts around his extravagant system of “squirrel-proof” bird feeders. This is only the 4th documented record of a Townsend’s Warbler overwintering in PA! Check out the slow-motion you tube video of the quick little warbler bustling about the feeders on Pine Road. Thanks , Dr. Green, for allowing me on your deck to see this fabulous bird!
Willistown Conservation Trust Bird News and Upcoming Events
Our first family Winter Bird Walk at Rushton Woods Preserve went very well last weekend with an avid group of about 20 birders of all skill levels in attendance. We enjoyed seeing (and hearing) many usual winter residents including Eastern Bluebirds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, American Goldfinch, Towhees and Dark-eyed Juncos. Thanks to Alice Hausmann, who was kind enough to allow us on her property to check out her pond, we got to glimpse some handsome Hooded Mergansers and a lone Bufflehead female.
Be on the lookout for information about our next public bird walk, which will hopefully be an American Woodcock Walk! These cryptic shorebirds can be viewed at dusk in early spring (beginning as early as late February or March), with the males performing stunning aerial displays for the females who watch from below. More information to come…
SAVE THE DATE! We will be hosting a “Pretty Big Birding Day” 6 pm May 11- 6pm May 12, during which teams of 3-6 birders of all ages and skill levels will compete against each other to see who can find the most bird species in the Trust’s program area in 24 hours! The event will end with a party, complete with casual dinner, drinks and awards. Don’t miss this opportunity to bird the beautiful Upper Ridley/Crum IBA (Important Bird Area), including all of the Willistown Conservation Trust’s Preserves after dark (normally only open until dusk) and other birding hotspots that are normally not open to the public. Start forming your team now and contact Dick Eales (REales36@gmail.com) for more information and contest rules and to register your team. Registration fees are $25 for adults and $10 for children under 12. Sign up by April 15th.
Beer for Birds, March 2, is SOLD OUT! Patrick McGovern, the world’s foremost beer archaeologist, will take us on a fascinating tour and tasting of ancient brews to benefit the Willistown Conservation Trust’s new Bird Conservation Program.
The next PA Young Birders (PAYB) Meeting is February 18th, 9:30-11am (Location to be announced- either Rushton Woods Preserve or WCT headquarters). Kids, ages 8-12, are welcome to join us and the rest of the nation for The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Please contact Lisa Kiziuk to sign your child up for the PA Young Birders GBBC February 18th (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The GBBC is an Audubon and Cornell citizen science project that offers scientists a real-time snapshot of winter bird distribution across the nation and is a very important source of population and occurence data. Check out the GBBC website to learn more about it and participate in your own backyard. You don’t have to be a kid to help scientists monitor birds, of course! It’s easy and fun; You just need to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, February 17-20, and submit your data online.
That’s all I’ve got for now!
Please join us tomorrow morning (January 28) from 8- 11am at Rushton Woods Preserve for some wonderful winter birding! Adults and children of all ages welcome!
Participants will get a chance to bird the rugged trails of the beautiful Rushton Woods Preserve as well as other private trails through pastoral scenes of Willistown not normally accessible to the public.
The walk will be led by the dynamic Dick Eales, our valued board member and head of our new Bird Conservation Committee, whose favorite past time is traveling the world on birding expeditions. We already have quite a few people signed up, including expert birders , beginner birders and the ‘I-don’t-know-what-a-birder-is’ birders, but the more the merrier! There is still time to sign up for this pleasant day of birding camaraderie; just email Lisa Kiziuk (email@example.com).
We just visited the preserve this morning, and the place was teeming with birds and MUD. Please remember to bring your binoculars and boots! There will be coffee and refreshments available in the farmshed after the walk.
Hope to see you in the field tomorrow! You never know what wonders winter birding may bring…
P.S. There may be a crooked caravan of Snowy Owl enthusiasts leaving straight from the walk at 11am and heading to Shippensburg to see the Cumberland County Snowy Owl, which has been spotted in a corn field there for the past month. On the way, we might check out the Prairie Falcon, a large falcon of the arid American West, and Townsend’s Warbler, a Pacific Northwest breeder, both of which have also been hanging out in Cumberland County. Anyone kooky enough is welcome to tag along to round up these rarities!