By Terri Estes

The snowy owl, also known as the polar owl or arctic owl, is native to the Arctic regions of the world. Occasionally, they will migrate as far south as our area during winter months, when food is scarce, or conditions up north are not favorable. Their primary habitats are open tundra and grasslands, so when they do show up in our area, they often prefer the open coastal line, and sand dunes of our beaches.

This very large owl is truly a sight to behold. Known for their thick white plumage that provides excellent camouflage in their Arctic habitat, these owls can have a wingspan that reaches up to five feet and can stand up 27 inches tall. Like other owl species, snowy owls have a round, flattened face with bright yellow eyes.  They have a bulky, heavily plumed body that helps them conserve heat in their cold Arctic environment.

Unlike most owls who are only nocturnal, snowy owls can also be active in the day. This breed is not known for its hooting, but instead uses a variety of other vocalizations including hissing, barking and chattering sounds.

Photo by Tricia Hyland Smith

In the Arctic, their main source of food is lemmings and voles, but they are also known to hunt all different types of shore birds, and are not above eating carrion.  This owl is a skilled hunter, often using a sit and wait strategy. Their excellent vision, especially in low light conditions, allow them to spot potential prey from a distance. After they capture their prey, they are known to typically swallow it whole. Their specialized digestive system allows them to process the flesh and bones.

This is a mysterious bird. They are nomadic in nature, and do not use the same nesting sites from year to year. They also do not generally migrate to the same places each year, and so, keep the bird watchers guessing. Some years, a huge influx of snowy owls will migrate to our area, while other years, none. Hopefully, this year will be the year that they decide to grace us with their glorious presence.  This winter, keep your eye out and your camera handy and be sure to send any pictures of the ghostly snowy owl to The Rockaway Times!


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