Ocean City Today
https://oceancitytoday.villagesoup.com/p/1713212

Snowy owls come back to Assateague island

By Brian Gilliland | Dec 21, 2017
Photo by: Dave Messick Snowy owl on Assateague Island

(Dec. 22, 2017) While filming a video for Worcester County Tourism about snowy owls and the occasional irruptions that cause them to migrate farther south than they normally, Jim Rapp discovered his subject was closer than he thought.

“I was out at [Gudelsky Park] filming when I got word there was one hanging around Assateague Island,” Rapp said. “I write the script and then Dave Messick goes out and shoots B-roll based on that. I come to find out he’s been shooting snowy owls for about a week.”

The video Rapp and Messick produced is scheduled to launch today on social media by the county tourism department.

Rapp is a co-founder of Conservation Community Consulting, which runs several bird-oriented events including Delmarva Birding Weekends that run throughout the year. The next scheduled trip is the Winter Birding Weekend, set for Jan. 26-28.

“It’s one of the things that makes winter travel to the beach great — this big, glorious white bird. I don’t know if it’s Harry Potter or anything else, but I’m so excited people are so enamored that they will go to the beach on a cold, blustery winter day for the chance to see one,” Rapp said.

It helps that the odds of actually seeing one seem to be in the people’s favor. Rapp said he’s been successful in finding a snowy owl when he’s gone looking more often than not, and Lisa Challenger, director of Worcester tourism, said people are not making the drive to search for owls for nothing.

“I think birding in general has brought people here but people also love snowy owls. I think Harry Potter made them famous, and the irruption gives people a better chance to see them,” she said.

Irruptions occur when snowy owls leave their Arctic homes and travel much farther south than usual. Smaller irruptions occur about every five years, but every so often untold thousands of the birds leave the nest.

The winter of 2013-14 was one of those years, and snowy owls have been sighted near Assateague every year since.

Ornithologists and enthusiasts created projectsnowstorm.org, a website dedicated to tracking irruptions. Previously injured but rehabilitated birds are fitted with tracking systems that ping the website whenever the owl is in range. For long periods during the year, they “go dark” while in the frozen north. Come irruption time, the raptors’ travels are documented.

During the big year of 2013-14, snowy owls went as far south as Florida, and some even turned up in Bermuda.

Rapp said the data show the irruptions are tied to food, but not the lack of it — rather, an abundance.

“The birds that are being found have good weight and are healthy,” he said.

Rapp said the birds might just want something different to eat.

“We’ve seen them ping a couple of miles offshore, and found them hanging out on buoys,” he said.

In their native habitat, Rapp said snowy owls feast on rodents and small birds, but out on the water, find different prey.

“They’re going after scoters and other sea ducks — these are big ducks and are totally aquatic, but when the snowy owls are here, they’re doing really well,” Rapp said. “Why they’re here is a major mystery, and the hope is the technology will solve it.”

As with viewing any wildlife, Rapp, Challenger and Messick all said the goal is to not disturb the snowy owls, because annoying the owls will just cause them to move on, so other people won’t be able to catch a glimpse.

“Use your zoom. The cameras get close so you don’t have to,” Rapp said.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.