Our New South Bergenite Column: Snowy Owls

Mike Girone snow29Jim Wright, who runs the Meadowlands Nature Blog for the New Jersey Mead0owlands Commission, also writes a twice-monthly column for the South Bergenite. His latest is on the Snowy Owls at DeKorte Park, and features photos by Mike Girone:

Earlier this month, DeKorte Park experienced an unprecedented event. Four — count ‘em, four — Snowy Owls flew out onto the ice for visitors to enjoy.

Few New Jerseyans have ever seen a Snowy Owl, let alone four, for one simple reason.  Snowy Owls fly south from the Arctic in the winter only occasionally in search of food, and when they do, they gravitate toward areas where they are difficult to see. They are used to barren tundra, where trees are far and few between,  and they tend to seek out similar habitat when they fly south.

This winter has been a record-setting season for Snowy Owls in the United States — one was even seen in Bermuda — and the Meadowlands’  iced-over mudflats and closed landfills are providing a wonderful home away from home for them.

Another big attraction: “There is plenty of food in the Meadowlands for them to prey on,” says NJMC Naturalist Mike Newhouse. “We know they like to eat waterfowl and animals like mice and rabbits, which are found in abundance here.”

As for why these owls so fascinate humans, Newhouse explains: “They look so powerful but appear so peaceful and majestic. All owls are beautiful,  but the snowy owl is one of a kind. Their white body with black speckling is just a sight to see.”

According to Newhouse, the last time Snowy Owls were seen in the Meadowlands was the winter of 2008-2009, when two of the raptors were seen off Valley Brook Avenue in Lyndhurst. The trouble was, the owls were on land that was off-limits to the public, and they typically perched hundreds of yards from where anyone could get good views.

In contrast, consider this recent eyewitness account from Mike Girone, an excellent birder who had come to DeKorte Park on the day before the Super Bowl in hopes of seeing Snowy Owls.

By late afternoon, he had seen three — including one that was dive-bombed by a peregrine falcon. Then, another female Snowy arrived on the ice, much closer than the others.

“This new female stole the show, remaining fairly close to Transco Trail, offering great viewing,” Girone says. “She even made a very close pass along the trail, to the delight (if not disbelief) of the sizeable crowd that had gathered.”

Girone says the owl “remained close by past sunset, perch-hunting in a tree along the trail. She finished the day by perching on the ice just across an open channel (and calling out a few times) before flying over to DeKorte’s Environmental Center.”

Girone summed up the experience in one word:  “Incredible.”

For snowy owl aficionados, the big question at this point is how much longer these charismatic raptors might stay.

“That’s hard to say because they have been moving around so much,” says the NJMC’s Newhouse. “I think we will see owls through the rest of the month  and into March. If we get lucky one might stay into April, but that would be a stretch.”

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