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Text and Photos by Peter Vankevich
This winter, Ocracoke did not get the Arctic blast and heavy snow that affected much of the country.
The relatively mild winter was a contrast from 2014 when two major snowstorms struck the island shutting down the school for several days and blanketing the island in a white shade of winter.
Adding to the excitement of an old-fashioned winter were two Snowy Owls observed almost every day from Dec. 26, 2013, to March 8, 2014. The island became a mecca for birders who flocked to the island to see them, bringing an economic boost during a slow time of the year.
Subsequently, the memories of the Snowy Owls reached near folklore level with lots of conversations beginning with, “Do you think the Snowy Owls will return this winter?”
After several years of absence, one finally appeared. Drama and anticipation began when a Snowy Owl was sighted on Dec. 29 in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, then near the Marc Basnight Bridge at Oregon Inlet.
On Jan. 7, a Snowy Owl was photographed perched on a house in Hatteras village putting Ocracoke on alert to the possibility that it would continue moving south.
Then, on Jan. 13, Walker Garrish and Elizabeth Aiken spotted the owl.
“We walk our two dogs daily at the same location at the South Point, and Walker noticed something unusual in the dunes he sees every day,” Aiken said. “It turned out to be a Snowy Owl.”
The owl was observed for a week, last seen on Jan. 19. During that time, it alternated between perching on a dune and spending time on the South Point’s extensive salt flat.
The Cape Lookout National Seashore reported that on Feb. 7 one of its biologists spotted a Snowy Owl on South Core Banks. The photo of that one looks like the owl seen on Ocracoke and farther up the Banks.
Owing to bad weather and the isolated location of the owl, it has not been seen in the Cape Lookout area since Feb. 11.
Circumpolar, Snowies nest in the Arctic tundra of the northernmost stretches of Alaska, Northern Canada and Euro Siberia. The normal wintering range is difficult to know, but it is believed some stay in the darkened Arctic. One can only imagine the challenges of covering hundreds of miles of the dark winter Arctic in search of these owls.
They are well-suited to withstand the cold. Their entire bodies including toes are covered with soft, fluffy feathers, and their feet have extra thick pads. They also have superb night vision to locate prey.
What is known is that others migrate south and winter throughout Canada and the northern areas of the United States.
Every year some migrate farther south than their normal wintering range. When that occurs in large numbers, it is called an irruption.
That winter of 2013-14 was one of the largest Snowy irruptions in a century with sightings as far south as Florida and even in Bermuda.
The cause of irruptions is complex and not fully understood. Some species may migrate farther south when their food crop is scarce.
This year, several not normally seen northern bird species were seen in North Carolina, especially Pine Siskins. Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Red Crossbills and Red-breasted Nuthatches have appeared at bird feeders and in parks.
Close off the Outer Banks, large numbers of Dovekies and Razorbills, normally seen in winter well out to sea and farther north, have been present.
Unlike some other bird species, in the case of Snowy Owls, according to the website Project SNOWstorm, a large collaborative research project that focuses on Snowy Owls, it is a myth that it is hunger or lack of their normal sufficient food sources that drives these owls south.
Rather, it is the opposite. The root cause is abundance of food during the summer breeding season. When high populations of lemmings, voles, ptarmigan and other Snowy prey are easily available, it leads to larger clutches of eggs and many more fledglings who are forced out of established territories and move south as the colder weather approaches.
Always a popular local news item when they appear, one gained international attention as it was seen briefly in the North Meadow ballfields area of New York City’s Central Park on Jan. 27.
The last official sighting there was in 1890, which news reports then also indicated an irruption year.
When Snowy Owls show up south of their normal range they tend to move around as the one seen on the Outer Banks has done this year.
So why did the two owls stay so long on Ocracoke back in 2014?
With the expansive salt flat and dunes then covered in snow, it looked a lot like their home court: the tundra.
Peter Vankevich is the Christmas Bird Count compiler for Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands and author of the Birds of Ocracoke profiles for the Ocracoke Observer.