Snowy Owls at Gravelly Point

By Steve Young

This winter, Snowy Owls from the Arctic have been showing up unusually far south, including in the metro Washington, DC area. This rare kind of bird migration event is called an “irruption.”

Irruptive movements may be driven by weather, breeding success, or prey scarcity up North. Snowies have been seen recently at Dulles, Manassas, and Reagan National Airports, some of the Atlantic beaches, and even in downtown DC. The owls may be attracted to airports and beaches because such places remind them of their native tundra.

Two Snowies have been spotted at Reagan National for several weeks. On January 27, 2014, David Farner organized an informal late-afternoon gathering of ARMN volunteers at Gravelly Point to look for the owls. Both were seen. I arrived at about 5:15 pm and got good looks at one of the owls.

A snowy owl at Gravelly Point. Photo by S. Young.
A snowy owl at Gravelly Point. Photo by S. Young.

The photo is a “digiscope,” made when I held my smart phone camera lens to the eyepiece of my spotting scope. This owl appears to be a scofflaw, as it is brazenly ignoring the threatening language on its sign perch. It made an interesting bobbing motion with its head a few times. I thought this might be a territorial display, but it seems it may be a motion made to help the owl discern prey movements.

Snowy owls are special birds, not often seen here, so catch the show if you can!

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