By Tom Rohrer
That’s been the migratory choice for the dynamically beautiful snowy owl, which has occupied areas on the coast of Washington, particularly Damon Point in Ocean Shores.
The snowy owl’s majestic beauty and relatively easy going manner make it appealing to bird watchers and nature enthusiasts alike. Harry Potter fans will recognize the snowy owl as the same species characterized by Harry’s pet owl Hedwig.
“People seem fascinated by these birds and a lot of that is due to the fact that they’re very gorgeous and relatively calm,” said Dianna Moore of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society. “Also, they’re out in open view and make no attempt to hide in trees.”
However, Moore noted that the owls will retreat to trees or cover if humans get too close to their position. She encourages bird watchers to observe the animals from afar.
According to Moore and scientific studies on the snowy owl, a percentage of the animal’s population migrates during a period of the harsh tundra winter. However, the surge in snowy owls in Grays Harbor is likely caused by an irruption in the owl’s population. This irruption is determined by the lemming population, the primary source of food for the snowy owl. If the lemming population is high, that leads to more food for the snowy owls, and in turn, more breeding. If the lemming population decreases, the owls will search for a primary food source. This may lead the birds to return to Ocean Shores.
“This year, we’re not sure if it’s another irruption, or echo irruption,” Moore said. “The lemming population could have crashed and forced a lot of owls to search for food.”
“Damon Point is a strip of sand that has dune grass growing on it and there are lots of logs deposited there from high wave action. The owls can see from those logs and then fly out for prey,” Moore continued. “It’s very similar to a tundra habitat in that it’s flat without much cover or trees.”
Moore noted that the majority of the snowy owls at Damon Point are younger, immature owls, identifiable by the dark spots barring across their white feathers. Adult males are very pale compared to the younger owls. Like most owls, the snowy owls hunt at night. Moore added that instead of feeding on lemmings, they will often prey on small shore birds, which are plentiful in the area.
Due to the harsh conditions on the tundra, there have been very few scientific studies on the species, adding even more to their appeal to bird watchers.
Moore wants to make sure that bird watchers and Damon Point visitors respect the bird’s habitat and privacy.
“They are calm for an owl, but they still don’t like to be harassed. People should not approach them with a camera phone to get a really close shot,” Moore said. “If the bird starts to move, don’t approach anymore. They hunt at night and are resting all day so they don’t want to be disturbed.”
Along with the Damon Point area, Moore noted she has seen television news reports of the owls staying on rooftops in the Ballard and Capitol Hill areas of Seattle. This is likely caused by the owl searching for a food source.
Local naturalists and bird watchers have enjoyed the opportunity to to view the snowy owl.
“They are a very large bird and are soft and downy looking,” Moore said. “Plus they’ve got these big eyes. That’s what makes babies and puppies cute and we as people love the big eyes. But really, they’re just plain beautiful.”
Photos courtesy of Olympia artist Kim Merriman, using a telephoto lens so she can maintain a respectful distance away from the snowy owls and not disturb them.