The Snowy Owl sat silently in the marsh grass, its arctic white feathers fluffed up in the brisk winter wind, serenely observing us. We were parked on the wildlife drive in the coastal wetlands of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife refuge, in Galloway Township, N.J., in one of the most active flyways for migrating ducks and shorebirds each fall and spring. We were within sight of Atlantic City, but a world away.
Except for the wind, the only sounds were the click and whir of cameras and the hushed conversations among the handful of other lucky watchers. There is something magical about a white owl that stands about two feet tall and has a wingspan of 4 ½ to 5 ½ feet. No one wanted to break the spell.
Unlike other owls, "snowies" are visible during daylight and often settle in one spot for hours. They become more active as daylight fades. Using binoculars, we had a clear view of the owl sitting unperturbed about 100 yards away. Now and then, it swiveled its head — owls can turn up to 270 degrees — scanning the wetlands with piercing yellow eyes, perhaps searching for voles rustling in the grass. They are mesmerizing showstoppers, but also fearsome hunters that can prey on waterfowl like the buffle head ducks swimming gracefully only a few wingbeats away. Like a falcon, an owl can snatch small birds midair and have been known to eat feral cats.
Only a few snowy owls habitually migrate this far south. I saw my first snowie at the refuge in 2013-14, during an unusually large migration, known as an historic irruption. That year, owls were spotted in North Carolina, Florida, and even Bermuda. I was captivated, and during the next two winters, I searched in vain for another arctic visitor.
This winter, significantly more owls have flown into New Jersey and Pennsylvania than usual, most likely because they had an abundant supply of lemmings to eat last summer and so hatched more owlets. Owls have been reported as far south as Washington.
This year, the New Jersey coastline is a snowie hotspot. They prefer wintering in places that mimic the treeless arctic tundra like coastlines, dunes, open fields, and airports. (At Philadelphia International Airport, about a half-dozen have settled in, especially around the economy parking lot.) The birds will fly back to the arctic in late March and April.
My husband and I are only casual birders, but we've have made three trips to the refuge this winter. We've been lucky each time.
Using ebird.org, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and its free Snowy Owl alert, I follow daily sightings, especially those within driving distance. The birds are nomadic and can disappear from a reported location.
Project SNOWstorm — a non-profit group dedicated to education, research, and conservation of the birds — has fitted several owls with small GPS transmitters. You can follow the birds' wanderings, stories, and photos in their free newsletter and learn snowy owl etiquette for responsible watching at projectsnowstorm.org.
Owls are raptors and, like eagles, are federally protected from trapping and shooting. They are also on the US-Canada Species Stewardship list as a bird of concern.
We spent the afternoon enjoying the owl, the bright blue bay, and the tidal marsh. As one fellow birder said, "It was a day of happiness."
Elizabeth Fletcher writes from Swarthmore.