|Posted by Matt on December 14, 2013 at 5:00 PM|
As the official start of winter approaches, Carolina birders have been treated to some early Holiday surprises: several snowy owls across the region! Most notable was the owl present at Cape Point in Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Buxton, NC. It appeared Thanksgiving week and continued for many days afterward, rewarding many birders who slogged out to the Outer Banks great views of an elusive northern visitor, and, for many, with a check mark on the life list! (Some birders were also able to see the irregular visitor Snow Bunting along the same stretch of beach the Snowy Owl was frequenting!) Also in the eastern parts of the Carolinas were Snowy Owls in Englehard, NC, Raleigh at the Waste Water Treatment Plant, and a one-day wonder at Cape Romain NWR, one of only a handful of records in South Carolina. Western North Carolina birders, however, were in for a real surprise, when a Snowy Owl showed up in Transylvania County near Rosman***. Another report came from Randolph County, but could not be confirmed. And elsewhere along the east coast, reports have been staggering. Last week 9 could be seen in the New York City area, as well as nearly 20 near Boston. Along stretches of Newfoundland coast, local birders have counted over 200 in a morning stroll. Experts believe an abundance of lemmings, rodents that make up most of the owls' summer diets, this breeding season contributed to an extremely successful year for the owls. Therefore, older owls claim the birds' usual wintering territory in the northern U.S. and much of Canada, expelling younger, immature birds that are showing up hundreds of miles south of their normal range. Unfortunately after such a long journey, many of these adolescents will die due to starvation or exhaustion. Thankfully the owl at Buxton took to eating gulls, caught "red-taloned" and with a blood-stained bill, and strong enough to fend off a marauding Peregrine Falcon, but (***) the Transylvania bird was quite weak and, nearing death, was captured by a local bird rehabilitator. Now nicknamed "Tundra", the immature female is now doing better and accepting food. Luckily Tundra had no other health problems aside from being dangerously underweight.
Many consider this winter to be one of the most historic Snowy Owl irruptions on record, and it's somewhat likely that more will show up in the Carolinas this winter, given how many have already found the region. Snowy Owls frequent open fields, beaches, and airports; habitats that appear similar to their tundra habitat where they breed. The open areas often harbor large numbers of rodents which Snowy Owls depend on for food during the winter months. Also, if you come across a Snowy Owl, keep your distance. While some of the birds aren't wary, most will fly off if you get too close, adding to the stress that they already have from their long journeys and their daily fight to find food.
Winter is also just a great time to get out and bird in general. Without any leaves on the trees, forest birding becomes remarkably easier, and lakes and ponds throughout the Carolinas fill with waterfowl. Christmas Counts take place in many communities, combining tradition with citizen science. To find when your local Christmas Count is taking place, get on a listserve, or an e-mail list explaining rarities, good birding spots/tips, and when happenings are occuring. Most local bird clubs/Audubon chapters (see Links: http://www.carolinayoungbirdersclub.org/apps/links/ ) have a listserve, also the Carolina Bird Club http://www.carolinabirdclub.org/ runs a wonderful listserve.
So get out and enjoy the season, whether you are hunting for Snowy Owls or tallying species for science!