Category Archives: Snowy Owls

HOW CAN THE BEATING WINGS OF A SNOWY OWL BE QUIETER THAN A BUTTERFLY’S WING BEATS?

Snowy Owl Hedwig Preparing for Take-off

Several times Hedwig has flown so close that I can feel the swooshing wind around her, but I wondered, why her wingbeats are virtually soundless. I have audio recordings of comparatively tiny Monarchs, whose wingbeats are a thousand times louder than that of Hedwig’s wingbeats.

Snowy Owls, like all owls, have evolved with specially designed wings that enable them to fly soundlessly, a necessary feature for stealth hunting of small mammals such as mice, lemmings, voles, shrews, and rats. Their wings are disproportionately large to their body mass, which allows for slow flying, as slowly as two miles per hour, a sort of glide-flying, with very little flapping needed.

Additionally, comb-like serrations on the leading edge of an owl’s wingtips break up the air that typically creates a swooshing sound, creating a silencer effect. And, too, the streams of air are softened by a velvety texture unique to owl’s wings and because of the feathery combs of the wing’s trailing edge (see illustration below).

Close-up images of a Great Horned Owl’s wing. On the left, you can see the leading-edge comb; it’s this width that Le Piane measured for her study. On the right, the trailing-edge fringe. Diagram: Krista Le Piane.

Image of a Great Horned Owl’s wings from Mass Audbon. READ MORE HERE.

HELLO HEDWIG! WHAT ARE YOU EATING? SNOWY OWL WEEKEND UPDATE

Hedwig foggy morning.

Hedwig has been seen daily along the backshore, mostly laying low during the day. She has become quite expert in fooling the crows as to her whereabouts. Fog, snow, rain, or sunshine, she isn’t deterred much from her routine of sleeping, resting, and grooming during the day, in preparation for an evening of hunting.

Early this week I watched in amazement as Hedwig swooped down from her perch and flew hundreds of feet directly to the rocks and in between crevasses. She resurfaced with a small mammal in her mouth and ate it very quickly–from the time she flew off her perch until she gave a satisfied lick of her beak could not have taken more than three minutes. I felt very fortunate to have witnessed a glimpse of her hunting prowess, albeit all too brief.

Perhaps the tail is too long for a mouse or rat and too short for a vole, but perhaps not. Small mammal caretaker Erin Whitmore wrote with her suggestion. What do you think Hedwig is eating?

Hedwig eating a black and white sea duck.

Again, tonight she flew off her perch, this time heading out to sea. In mere minutes she returned with a sea duck of some sort and proceeded to eviscerate, much to the thrill of her Sunday evening fan club. The lighting was low and I was mostly filming, but did manage a few stills.The duck was black and white and as she mostly sat on her catch while eating, it was difficult to determine which species. Without a crow in sight (as they had surely settled for the night), Hedwig ate well into the early evening.

The feathers were flying! Hedwig with feathers on her face but it’s almost too dark to see.

She’s finding the eating here in Gloucester excellent, but with the warm weather predicted for the upcoming week, I wonder if Hedwig will stay or that will be a cue to depart for the Arctic.

Please don’t get electrocuted Hedwig, as happened recently to a Snowy in southern Massachusetts!

RATS, RATS, AND MORE RATS! SNOWY OWL HEDWIG WEEKEND UPDATE #2

Hedwig was observed Saturday morning, when repeated harassment by a flock of crows sent her hiding. She reappeared Saturday afternoon, and was again seen Sunday morning in the drizzle, not too far from where she was perched Saturday evening. Later Sunday afternoon she slept and rested in the pouring rain.

Hedwig sleeping in the rain (thank you to Arly Pett for letting me know she was out in the rain!)

That she stays in a highly localized winter territory seems in keeping with known Snowy Owl behavior traits. I read that during the summer season in the Arctic, male Snowies hunt over hundreds of miles, whereas female Snowies typically hunt within a much smaller range. She has been observed eating sea ducks and rabbits and there are plenty of rat holes along the backshore rocks.

Both rats and lemmings (the Snowies super food in the Arctic) belong to the order Rodentia. From wiki, “A lemming is a small rodent usually found in or near the Arctic in tundra biomes. Lemmings are subnivean animals. They make up the subfamily Arcicolinae together with voles and muskrats which forms part of the superfamily Muroidea which also includes rats, mice, hamsters, and gerbils.”

Lemming (Lemmini)

Often Hedwig has been seen flying straight out over the water towards Twin Lights. I wondered, if she is hunting there, does Thacher Island have a rat population. Thacher Island Association president Paul St. Germain answers that question for our readers, 

“Hi Kim, there are lots of rats on Thacher mostly in the shore line rocks. We don’t see them often but know they are there. I discovered a bunch in the cellar of the keeper house making their nest in an old tarp. I would love to see Hedwig out there but we don’t go out in the winter. Have never seen snowy owls in the summer.” 

Great info and thanks to Paul for sharing that! A Snowy Owl has been seen on the rocks in Rockport, across the strait, opposite Twin Lights, and wonder if it is our Hedwig.

Rat and Lemming photos courtesy wiki commons media

This brings up the topic, what to do if you have a rat problem. The absolute worst way to control rats is with rat poison, namely for the sake of beautiful predatory birds such as Snowy Owls, falcons, hawks, and eagles. Birds that ingest rats that have been poisoned with rat poison will generally become gravely ill and die. Secondly, it is a cruel, slow death for the rat. They will usually go back to their nest to die. If that nest is located behind a wall in your home, you will smell that unmistakeable horrendous smell for many months. Thirdly, rat poison is only 60 percent effective. I wonder if the rats that survive rat poison will go on to breed super rats.

The best way to avoid having to kill a rat is to make sure they cannot gain access to your home or business by regularly inspecting soffits and woodwork for holes. Old-fashioned snap traps and live trapping continue to be the most effective way to rid your home or business of rats.

Saturday I stopped to say hello to a group of birders flocked together along the backshore who had traveled all the way from western Mass. They were observing Grebes, Buffleheads, and a Common Murre. And a Puffin had been spotted! I asked if they were planning to go to any of our local restaurants for lunch, but they had packed lunches. One Mom shared that an expert from Audubon told the group that there were at least a “dozen Snowy Owls” on Bass Rocks. Bananas! I have to say that it makes me hoppin’ mad when folks spread misinformation about our local wildlife. I gently told her that no, there were not a dozen owls, but that if she and her group waited until late afternoon, they might catch sight of Hedwig.

Twin Lights from a Snowy Owl POV

SNOWY OWL HEDWIG UPDATE

Last weekend was a busy one for Hedwig. She is attracting crowds from all around the Boston area. I checked in on her Monday afternoon on my return from Brooklyn and according to a photographer friend she had a very rough day with the crows. One actually hit her hard in the head. She left Bass Rocks Monday evening and I didn’t see her the rest of the week until this morning.

Found this morning with messy face and talons, tidying up from a morning hunt.

A single crow came by to harass her and unlike previous incidents, where I have seen here hold her ground, she left her post immediately and flew to a very cool super secret hiding place. I have never seen her do this before but am so impressed with her ingenuity. She is safe from both crows and crowds in this locale.

Hedwig returned to the railings at the end of the day. After first fluffing and poohing she took off over the water and headed straight toward Twin Lights. I imagine there is good hunting on Thacher Island 🙂

Heading off to hunt late day 

Sleeping in the afternoon sun

My What Big Feet You Have Hedwig

A Snowy Owl’s feet are covered in feathers, providing insulation against Arctic temperatures–just like a pair of warm fluffy slippers.

Hedwig left her perch and walked over to a patch of snow, which she proceeded to eat. She also washes her face and feet in snow patches.

How Long Will the Snowy Owls Stay in Massachusetts?

Sleeping on a Precipice

Not all Snowy Owls migrate south, but the ones that do leave the Arctic tundra to winter over in North America arrive at their wintering grounds (areas such as the Massachusetts coastline) usually beginning in mid-to late-November. Some don’t arrive until December and some as late as January. They migrate along coastlines, prairies, river valleys, and even mountain ridgelines are thought to help guide the Snowies.

By mid-April, most Snowies have left Massachusetts, although one study that I read recorded a Snowy that did not leave Logan Airport until July 7th! Another study reported that in most cases, the Snowy Owls that did not leave until summer were non-breeding birds in their first year of life.

How long will Hedwig stay? She appears to be getting plenty to eat and is quite well adapted to backshore living, despite her throngs of weekend fans. Let’s hope her stay is a good one and that she returns to the Arctic this summer to make lots of little Hedwigs and Bubos!

SNOWY OWL WATCHING TIPS: The following are some helpful tips for watching Snowy Owls.

  1. Watch from a comfortable distance–comfortable for the bird that is. Nothing makes the Owls more stressed than people getting too close.
  2. Please keep children from throwing rocks towards the Snowy or anywhere within the vicinity of the Owl.
  3. Please don’t allow dogs to play near the Snowies.
  4. There have been reports of Snowies flying into cars. They often fly low when flushed and it is easy to understand why this may happen, especially as the Snowies are drawing so much traffic. Please be on the look out when you are in known Snowy Owl territory.
  5. Slamming doors, radios blasting, barking dogs, and loud mufflers all stress the Snowies.

Thank you Everyone for being good caretakers of Hedwig, Bubo, and all the Snowies during their stay in Gloucester!

Jennifer and her daughters Ellie and Isla are super Snowy stewards, keeping well beyond the 150 feet recommended for safe observation.

SNOWY OWL HEDWIG TAKES A BATH!

Filming and photographing Cape Ann wildlife I have experienced extraordinary beauty and fascinating behaviors at nearly every encounter but filming a Snowy Owl take a bath has to be one of my favorite captures. I think there are a number of reasons why we are so captivated by these beautiful creatures. Most owls are nocturnal, which doesn’t allow much viewing of their day to day life. On the other hand, the diurnal Snowy Owl gives us a wonderful window into their world. Culturally, owls symbolize wisdom and intelligence and the characters they are assigned in literature strengthen our associations. Mostly though we are drawn to these creatures because they do not appear to be afraid of us, unlike most wild animals. Snowies will become irritated and depart an area when startled, or are being pestered, but I don’t sense fear in these Arctic visitors. I wonder if most have ever even seen a human being prior to migrating south.Hedwig was a contented mess, her feet and talons blood stained reddish pink from a fresh kill. It was the morning after a rain storm, and the crevices atop Bass Rocks held pools of icy fresh water.

She at first gingerly hopped over to the largest pool, paused, and then jumped in. Repeatedly Hedwig dipped her face into the water to drink. After quenching her thirst, she plunged her entire face into the pool of water. She cleaned her face feathers by rubbing them against her breast feathers. Immersing, rubbing, immersing, rubbing, her face was clean in no time.

Then Hedwig went all in, dipping and soaking all her feathers, but not all at once did she completely submerge herself. I think that would have left her vulnerable to predators if she were unable to fly. She dipped and soaked, then fluffed her feathers, then repeated all several times more. The total length of time was about 40 minutes; she was still fluffing when I had to leave. Watching a Snowy Owl take a winter bath was beautiful and fascinating, unexpected and funny and am overjoyed to have captured with photos and film.

Happiness is a long winter bath.

A flock of Herring Gulls had the same idea.