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In Search of the Majestic Snowy Owl on the Connecticut Coast

Birders in Connecticut are enjoying a rare spectacle this holiday season: the Snowy Owl. I teamed up with Milan Bull from the Connecticut Audubon Society and went searching for this arctic bird, which is capturing the imagination of bird lovers across the state.

There's something magical about owls. "If you like owls, this is the quintessential owl to get excited about," Bull said. "It's a big white snowy bird from the high Arctic. They're spectacular birds, and they look so out of place. I mean, you're walking along the beach like this, and there's this big white owl. Most people look at it -- they can't believe it. They say, 'Is that real?'

Credit Wikimedia Commons
A female snowy owl.

I met up with Bull at Milford Point, an eight-acre barrier beach at the mouth of the HousatonicRiver. Our mission? To spot the majestic Snowy Owl, a yellow-eyed bird about two feet tall, with brilliant, white feathers. Bull said the owls have been popping up in unusually high numbers across Connecticut. This year's "irruption" (fancy ecological word for "incursion") is the largest Bull said he could remember since the 1970s.

Bull said part of the reason for the irruption of owls is low food supplies up north. Snowy Owls hang out on the flat tundra hunting lemmings and other small mammals, but when food supplies run out, young owls often head south in search of prey.

They're attracted to Connecticut's open coastal dunes, which mimic the tundra, and house a variety of small rodents. Bull said the Snowy Owls won't nest here, but they will spend a few weeks in the state looking for food.

At the beach, Bull pulled out his binoculars and began scanning the horizon for birds, but the owl was not in residence. So he suggested we continue our hunt over at StratfordPoint, an Audubon observation post a few miles down the Connecticut coast. We hopped in our cars, drove over, and started scanning the horizon at our new spot right near Sikorsky Memorial Airport.

At first, it looked like the trip was another bust. But then ... 

The bird was about 15 feet away from us; we could see the yellow in its eyes as its head rotated wildly. Frankly ... we were a little too close, so Bull suggested we hop in our cars and back off. About 50 yards away, we set up a scope and began observing the Snowy Owl.

It was a juvenile, with black bars over brilliant white feathers. Bull said it was likely this was the first time the bird from way up north had ever seen humans.

"Often, they are not too wary at first, you know?" Bull said. "People can get up fairly close, but because they are under so much stress... we're trying to ask people to stay back, give them some space." 

Owls have eyes that are fixed in their head, which Bull said explains the wild head rotations. And then there are the talons. "Big, powerful strong talons," he said. "They're really efficient lemming traps. They don't miss."

We stood in awe of the bird for about 20 minutes, and then it flew off.

Bull told me Snowy Owls are solitary birds, and they're highly transient, so it's hard to pin down exactly how much longer this one would stay in Connecticut, or how many Snowy Owls are spending their winter here in Connecticut. But if you're walking around this winter, it's possible you'll stumble across one.

Bull said Snowy Owls have been seen everywhere, from the marshes of Essex, to open fields in East Hartford. 

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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