GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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January 11, 2012

It's snowy owl season

PLUM ISLAND — There's been a surge in snowy owl sightings across the nation, and biologists believe the thanks goes to lemmings, those hapless little creatures known for jumping en masse off cliffs.

At least two snowy owls have been spotted with regularity on Plum Island and Crane Beach in Ipswich over the past few weeks, most recently near parking lot 5 in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport. They have drawn an enthusiastic following of birdwatchers wanting to catch a glimpse of the strikingly handsome birds.

"It's one of the really big deals in this area in the winter," said David Larson, education coordinator for Massachusetts Audubon's Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport. "The snowy owl is always a huge draw. People love to see them.

"People are constantly coming through here asking what the latest information is."

Gloucester resident Chris Leahy, a former director of the Massachusetts Audubon's Center for Biological Conservation, said there have not been any sightings of snowy owls around Cape Ann this winter — yet.

"Last year was a notably low year, we had virtually none around," Leahy said. "But this year seems to be kind of a regular year," meaning at least some of the striking birds may well turn up soon.

"One of the great hot spots in the world for snowy owls in the winter, believe it or not, is Logan Airport," Leahy said. "Their hot spots are areas that have barrier beaches or dunes."

That doesn't fit Cape Ann's landscape. But there can be some local hot spots, too, he noted — such as Coffin's Beach in West Gloucester.

"Coffin's Beach is almost across from Crane's," he noted, "and I would make a tour and keep an eye on the islands that are just offshore — places like Straitsmouth, and maybe at Halibut Point."

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