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You gaze east from the mountain’s peak and see the gentle greens of spring. You look south to the fiery heat and deep hues of summer. You turn west to see glowing autumn foliage. And at last turn north and feel a strong arctic wind whipping across a snowy landscape. Welcome to The Nature of Phenology where we share the cycles and seasons of the outdoors. I’m your host, Hazel Stark.
With winters as long as ours are in Maine, we have to make the most of it. The people I have known who have moved here from warmer places then left because they couldn’t handle winter are usually those that never figured out how to enjoy winter outside—because of course winter is awful (or any season, really) if you stay inside the whole time. If exercise on skis or snowshoes or other forms of snowplay aren’t good enough motivators for you, perhaps a snowy scavenger hunt is more your style. This time of year is an especially great time to put your nature curiosity hat on to seek out an elusive winter visitor: the snowy owl. (snowy owl sound)
Not many people would imagine Maine being a warm respite in the winter, but to snowy owls Maine is the perfect vacation. This large, mostly white owl spends summers living and nesting on the Arctic tundra where it eats small animals such as lemmings, voles, and ptarmigan. Come winter, when these primary food sources are as scarce as sunlight on the Arctic landscape, snowy owls come south for more abundant food and to catch some rays.
Over the past few years, I have been aware of irruptions of snowy owls across the Great Lakes and Northeastern USA and have been driven to see them in the wild. These “irruptions” are winters when lots of snowy owls move south from the Arctic. In years when their food is abundant in the Arctic, snowy owls are able to reproduce more easily and more of their young survive. When winter comes to the Arctic and the owls start to move south, there are suddenly more snowy owls moving south–which are more likely to be noticed by humans.
Several years ago, I made it a goal to go on a hike to find snowy owls at least once each winter, usually around the winter solstice. My methods are pretty consistent: I head for areas reminiscent of their usual wide open tundra landscape. Open mountaintops or islands, fields, beaches, blueberry barrens, and even airports are likely places to find these feathery travelers. I also prepare carefully for the conditions—these open areas, especially mountaintops, can be much windier and colder than you’d expect.
On one particular trip, I packed many insulative and wind-breaking layers, binoculars, a camera, plenty of warm water, and all the fixings for making hot miso noodle soup on a mountain summit. While open, seemingly barren, mountaintops do not appear hospitable to the human eye, a careful look at the tracks in the patches of snow quickly indicated that snowy owls would certainly have a food source up there. Snowshoe hare and small rodent tracks crisscrossed almost every patch of snow. At the summit, we made and enjoyed our hot, restorative lunch while scanning the landscape. One raven silently glided over us, but that was all the bird-life we noticed.
As we started our slow, chilling hike south along a ridge, we stopped at regular intervals to scan the landscape with binoculars. I noticed what appeared to be two-thirds of a small snowman hunkered on the lee side of a rock–perfectly matching the other lumps of snow scattered on the ridge–and humorously asked my hiking partner with the binoculars whether it was an owl. It was! The white owl certainly noticed us, but clearly did not mind our observation. He sat still but for the smooth 270 degree rotation of his head, scanning the landscape (and us) for the potential of food or threats. That experience was one of those exceptional nature observation moments that made the entire winter worth it.
So the next time you have cabin fever—or if you want to prevent that particular mood from knocking at your door—you could get prepared for a wintry scavenger hunt adventure to find these majestic visitors from the Arctic. If you find one, we’d love to hear about your experience!
You can find a link to the full transcript of this show as well as references, contact information, and accompanying photos by visiting archives.weru.org. You can also listen to or download our features or subscribe to podcasts. Theme music was by a pileated woodpecker, made available by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks for listening and please join us next week for another dive into The Nature of Phenology.
About Snowy Owls. (2018). Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/blue-hills-trailside-museum/our-work/snowy-owl-project/about-snowy-owls
Snowy Owl Identification, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (2018). Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Snowy_Owl/id
Stark, H. (2016, December 25). Snowy Owls “South” for the Winter. Retrieved November 21, 2018, from https://partridgepineandpeavey.wordpress.com/2016/12/25/snowy-owls-south-for-the-winter/