Environmental Issues > Water Main Page > All Water Documents Nature along New York and New Jersey's Atlantic Coastlines
January: Snowy Owls

When food is scarce in the Arctic, these owls visit the New York and New Jersey coast.

snowy owl

Snowy owls -- large birds of prey perfectly adapted to life in the northern Arctic -- are rare visitors to the relatively balmy climes of the Harbor Bight, but a natural Arctic cycle brings them our way every so often. Their lives are intimately tied to those of their predominant food, lemmings. When tundra conditions are good, lemming populations explode, and snowies follow suit. Lemmings multiply so rapidly, however, that over the course of a few years they exhaust available food supplies, at which point the population crashes. When snowy owl populations are at a peak, lemmings are in decline; in response, snowies "irrupt" southward -- they wander into southern Canada and the northern United States in search of food, where they appear along lakeshores, marine coastlines and marshes, and even roost on buildings in cities and towns. (In the Northeast, snowfall and temperature may be factors in snowy owl invasions.) These southward movements usually occur every three to five years, but can be highly irregular. Adult females stay furthest north while immature males move furthest south during these incursions. In some years, small numbers may reach as far south as the Gulf states and Georgia.

Snowy owls clearly demonstrate evolution's power to sculpt life to fit environment. Under their thick outer feathering is a dense layer of down, which allows them to maintain an internal temperature of 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, even when the air temperature is 70 below. The heaviest of North American owls, snowies can be nearly pure white in color. (Females are always darker than males, and have white feathers barred with dark brown.) The light coloration provides camouflage when the owls are perched on snow or on sand. And while other owls are nocturnal, snowies are active both night and day -- an adaptation that makes perfect sense, given that daylight is continuous within the Arctic Circle during much of the summer nesting season.

snowy owlLike other owls, snowies have eyes that are fixed in their sockets. In order to see all around, they have extra vertebrae in their necks that permit them to rotate their heads up to 270 degrees in either direction (but not all the way around, as some once thought). The sight of one of these silent white hunters, sitting atop a fencepost and swiveling its head and huge yellow eyes toward you, is one you won't soon forget.

Where to See Them: Snowies prefer open country and like an elevated perch. Look for them along the coast on telephone poles and fenceposts, atop roofs, and on the summits of the dunes. Good spots include Sandy Hook (N.J.), Breezy Point and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, all in Gateway National Recreation Area; Jones Beach, Robert Moses State Park, and Shinnecock East County Park on Long Island, and Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, Liberty State Park and the Hackensack Meadowlands in New Jersey.

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A Year in the Harbor Bight Click on the months below, and see what's wild throughout the year.

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More Highlights Northern Gannets: Large, brilliantly white seabirds that nest on rocky islands in the North Atlantic, northern gannets winter in good numbers off the coasts of New York and New Jersey. Gannets are spectacular fishers; strong and powerful fliers, they can glide effortlessly just above the wave tips, then fold their long wings and "plunge dive" upon seeing their prey, raising 10-foot-high plumes of spray. They are often the stars of pelagic (open-ocean) birding trips and visits (with a high-powered scope) to eastern Long Island's Montauk Point and New Jersey's Cape May Point and Avalon Sea Watch.

gannet

Photos: Don Riepe/Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

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