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Rare Arctic Visitors Coming to Shore Area in Record Numbers

Snowy owls being spotted at local beaches in unprecedented numbers

Don Freiday/Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
Don Freiday/Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge
Sightings of snowy owls, usually a rare winter guest spotted once or twice a year in New Jersey, have become increasingly common over the past few weeks in the Shore area.

The striking, mysterious-looking white owls, who usually make their home in the arctic regions and overwinter in the Canadian maritimes, have been spotted up and down the beaches of New Jersey in recent weeks, from Sandy Hook to Cape May. Fishermen have seen them resting on beaches at Island Beach State Park and Barnegat Light, while birdwatchers and naturalists have observed them in Galloway Township and Ocean City.

"During my lifetime, we have not had an incursion of snowy owls to this magnitude," said Brian Moscatello, a naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory who has been a birdwatcher for 42 years.

"Normally, New Jersey is about the southern limit. One or two will be spotted," he said.

But this year there have been more than 100 sightings from Nov. 1 through the first days of December, according to eBird.org, a website that relies on spotters to report their bird sightings. Hotspots for sightings have included Sandy Hook, Island Beach State Park, Holgate and the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge near Galloway.

Sightings have also occurred in Ocean City and Corson's Inlet State Park, as well as a few mainland locations, such as Jackson Liberty High School in Jackson Township and the lawn of the Cedar Creek Golf Course in Berkeley Township.

There was even one sighting in Bermuda, said Moscatello.

Escaping The Crowds

The unprecedented number of sightings has prompted local naturalists to come up with theories as to why the birds are appearing in the Garden State so frequently this year. Past theories have linked increased snowy owl sightings to a lack of lemmings – owls' natural prey – in Canada. But this time around, most are coming to the conclusion that an excellent breeding year has led to the species' natural winter haunts in southern Canada to become too crowded by older birds, forcing the youngest to migrate south.

New theories are necessitated due to the variances between the sightings this year and other years when snowy owls made strong appearances in the United States.

"The invasion was much broader in scope in 2011, and the total for the Northeast is already much higher this year – we’re just a few days into December," said a report on eBird.

"Just last week, we had a report from Newfoundland where two birders went out together and just birded from sunrise to sunset," said Moscatello. "In a relatively constrained area, they had 138 snowy owls in one day, in just a little bit of coastal Newfoundland. Those northern areas are heavily occupied."

That means the birds being seen in New Jersey are mostly juveniles, likely born this past breeding season or the one before it. Like most bird species, Moscatello said, many owls that migrate might south not make it back to their regular habitat. But that doesn't mean some won't – and while they're here, they will likely find ample food despite some local challenges.

"We don’t have lemmings, but we do have voles, mice, rats and things like that," said Moscatello.

The owls will face certain unique threats to their seasonal survival, however, including a lack of rats in the local marshlands due to Superstorm Sandy and the prospect of coming into contact with domestic animals like dogs that could post a safety hazard. Such threats don't generally exist in the Arctic regions.

Some of the owls may be hungry, and others may be stressed, Moscatello said.

Winter beachgoers are being urged to keep their dogs on a leash, and those who encounter owls should stay a few hundred feet away so as to limit the degree to which they're disturbed or flushed from their resting areas.

"There may be a report here and there, but often in the winter you won’t have any snowy reports in New Jersey," said Moscatello. "This has happened in the past, but so far [this year], it's on the extreme end of things."

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