It’s hard to shoot a bird this remarkable. A few weeks ago, the “Today” show featured a story on several snowy owls that were shot by airport officials in New York and New Jersey. It’s a fate suffered by many snowy owls that inadvisably hang out near runways. Unfortunately, airports in winter appear exactly like home to a snowy owl, which breeds in the high arctic tundra and likes flat open spaces.
Food shortages can drive owls south in winter, sometimes very far south. This is the second year in a row that a multitude of owls has crossed the border looking for food. Some travel astonishingly far. They’ve been seen as far south as Jacksonville, Fla. One crossed the ocean to Bermuda, only to die from eating poisoned rats. The first snowy owl ever to be seen in Hawaii showed up at the Honolulu airport last winter. The airport crew tried to convince it to leave but, in the end, they shot it.
The three owls shot by the New York Port Authority died because there is no compromising safety when hundreds of human lives are at stake. Several other owls had already collided with aircraft. They are occasionally shot in Portland, too. Still, owl-shooting leads to public outrage and airport officials are trying to improve their abilities to trap and transport owls to safety.
Boston is more experienced with snowy owl invasions and has been trapping and transporting for years. That’s how owl No. 99906 happened to be caught at Logan Airport on March 12, 2012. The juvenile female was released later that day at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Mass. This one was tagged with a satellite transmitter.
Number 99906’s first move was a bad one. She went right back to Logan, where she remained until April 11, avoiding recapture but also avoiding midair collision. Finally, it was time to head north. She dallied for a week, arriving near Mount Washington on April 18. From there, she took just two days to reach central Quebec, well above the St. Lawrence River. Three days later, she was farther north, reaching an area filled with the kind of northern spruce forest that she might find familiar. About 48 hours later, she approached the east side of Hudson Bay.
On April 29, the bird settled onto a remote airfield and waited for favorable winds. By this time, she was deep into Quebec but still far from home. For the next week, she spent most of her time along the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, sometimes on offshore islands, most of the time along icy beaches. By May 16, the owl had reached tundra in northern Quebec, but was still only halfway up the bay.
Around the end of May, No. 99906 took off across the still-frozen top of Hudson Bay, reaching Southhampton Island in Nunavut on June 1st. There, she spent just enough time to grab a meal or two, then made a big leap to the top of Nunavut, then another final leap to her summer home. Here, in the land of the midnight sun, she lingered on the tundra from mid June to mid September, snatching lemmings, voles, and any other arctic meal that might present itself. She had traveled more than 2,000 miles to a land where few creatures could survive, only 140 miles away from the tip of the North American mainland.
In September, as winter closed in, I’m flabbergasted by what happened next. Rather than heading southeast along her previous route, the snowy owl proceeded down the west side of Hudson Bay, reaching the edge of civilization at Churchill, Manitoba, on the first days of November 2013. Within two weeks, she was at the southern extremity of Hudson Bay, and reached Montreal a short time later. By Thanksgiving, she was back at Logan. Number 99906 was just a yearling, yet she had managed to find her way north to the arctic through Quebec, and then south through Manitoba, circumnavigating Hudson Bay. She had traveled thousands of miles over a route she had never seen, ending up in the exact same place. Scientists call this an irruption echo.
Last year’s invasion is repeating itself this year. Most snowy owls are being seen along the southern Maine coast, but a few have reached central and eastern Maine, and I’ve had a report of two near Bangor. Be on the lookout for a large white bird that looks exactly like Harry Potter’s owl, Hedwig.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.