In 2013, the northern United States was in the midst of an irruption. No, that isn’t a typo; an “irruption” is a sudden increase in a species’ population, usually due to surges or crashes in food supplies. The winter of 2013-2014 was just one of those crazy years for Snowy Owls. Areas that had one seen only a handful of owls every year were now seeing dozens, and places that had once harbored dozens were now home to hundreds. Birders were going crazy, as was the general population of non-birders. Who doesn’t want to see a Hedwig look-alike, from Harry Potter fame?
I use eBird, a citizen science website that collects and publishes bird sightings from birders all over the world, when I’m looking for a specific species. From the day I returned home to Maine for my graduate school winter break I was tuned in to the latest owl sightings. They were at the airport, along busy streets, perched on chimneys, calmly sitting on the ice, and hunting for prey in snowy fields. Though in the arctic they primarily feed on lemmings (small mice-like creatures), they will eat ducks, gulls, mice, rabbits, and basically anything else they can get their talons on. Since they are the second largest owl species with a wingspan of over 50 inches, their size is an advantage.
Though it was easier to see Snowy Owls during an irruption year – especially because they are out and about during the daytime – it still wasn’t easy. I had already struck out once going birding with my dad at Scarborough Marsh.
Scarborough Marsh is a birding hot spot in Maine, a wide, wet landscape that attracts waterfowl, raptors, songbirds, seabirds, and wading birds. The snow we had gotten early on during my stay had melted, leaving the marshes a golden, fall-like color. Bright red berries waved in the wind, and the water moved quickly, though quietly.
There are many places to explore the marshes, but we chose a single road on raised land that cut straight across the marsh itself, affording great views of open water and the drier marsh grasses. Ice floated here and there, swirling lightly in the current. If there was a Snowy Owl around, there was no way it could hide.
We walked across the raised land, scanning back and forth. Small sparrows sang in the bushes ahead of us, and a juvenile loon fished in the deeper waters of the marsh; a few American Black Ducks swam amidst the reeds, but in general there was a lack of avian activity.
We made it to the end of the road and back, a distance of well over a mile, but no Snowy Owls. There was a moment when we thought we had it, a large dark form swooping over us and landing in a tall pine tree. But immediately the problems were apparent – the bird was large, but too dark, and Snowy Owls don’t usually perch on the top of really tall trees.
It was not an owl, but it was impossible not to be intrigued by such a large bird. We walked as close as we could, craning out necks in the center of the parking lot. The bird remained far away, but just close enough that I hoped we could identify it with a well-timed photo or two. Turns out, I didn’t need to worry, we were looking right at a Bald Eagle, with a shining white head to prove it! We exchanged high fives, marveling at the size of the regal-looking national bird.
My dad and I had a fun time, but I was still owl-less, and I wanted so badly to both see the bird, as well as add it to my year list before 2013 ran out. Stay tuned to find out if I saw one!