By John Macone
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."
As striking as owls can be in appearance, snowy owls are notable even among their own kind. Their eyes are bright yellow, and their feathers are pure white with a pattern of short, squiggled black lines that give them some camouflage on tree limbs. They can range in height up to 28 inches, with 5-foot wingspans.
Snowy owls have recently gained some fame in popular culture. In the Harry Potter books and movies, Harry's owl sidekick, Hedwig, is a snowy.
Snowy owls' main habitat is the Arctic, but they are known to migrate south in pursuit of food.
This year's unusual migration is believed to be related to lemmings — rodents that vary between 3 and 6 inches long and are commonly found in the Arctic. Like all rodents, they tend to experience population booms and busts. Biologists believe the lemming population is undergoing a bust, sending snowy owls far south in search of food, such as field mice and ducks.
"The migration usually means the food supply is in bad shape up north, and that usually means lemmings," Larson said.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which supports a large snowy owl population, also attributes the unusual southern migration to the lemming dilemma.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that snowy owls have been spotted in unusually — perhaps historically — high numbers across the nation, from Washington State in the West to Plum Island in the East. They have also been sighted as far south as Kansas.
Larson said the number of snowy owls seen around Plum Island this year is about normal, although in some years — like last year — Plum Island also had none.
"Two is not unusual. Three or four is really good," Larson said.
Times editor Ray Lamont contributed to this story by John Macone, who is the editor of the Daily News of Newburyport. Macone can be reached at email@example.com.