Snowy owls infiltrate Maine, stirring questions about human-wildlife relations

Posted Feb. 19, 2014, at 11:51 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 19, 2014, at 6:10 p.m.

A group of intriguing visitors have swooped into Maine this winter and, while beautiful to look at, they are creating a dilemma when it comes to wildlife entering established urban areas. Luckily, Vacationland residents are used to catering to company.

Hundreds of snowy owls, native to the Arctic tundra, have traveled south in a migration that is unprecedented, and many of them are finding suitable hunting grounds in the Pine Tree State.

“This is as big as anyone can remember,” said Bob Duchesne, BDN birding columnist and leader of the Maine Bird Group.

While a number of snowy owls tend to travel south each winter, this year that number has skyrocketed. Hundreds of snowy owls have crossed the Canadian border in search of food, some traveling as far south as subtropical Bermuda, according to Audubon Magazine.

A series of natural events led to this year’s “irruption,” a term biologists use to describe a sudden surge in numbers. Broadly speaking, a recent boom in the lemming population in the Arctic tundra fostered a high rate of survival among snowy owl fledglings, said Duchesne, and therefore, an increase in the snowy owl population. And now, there simply aren’t enough lemmings to go around.

In Maine, these large, white birds are being spotted primarily along the coast. But they’ve also been spotted in the northern tip of the state and hunting in central Maine fields, where their typical lemming diet is replaced by other rodents such as field mice, voles and squirrels as well as the occasional duck.

“We seem to be having plenty of food around,” Duchesne said. “Most of them seem to be doing OK. But some dead owls have been found.”

Avian Haven, a wild bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, has received three snowy owls so far this year. Two died of starvation, while the third owl — found trapped in a Portland building — was successfully rehabilitated and released into the wild.

Many of the state’s birders and wildlife photographers are rejoicing at the chance to see this mystifying bird in action. But the visiting “snowies” have raised a few issues.

“There’s been problems of snowy owls at airports for quite a while,” said Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth. “But this winter, this irruption we’ve been seeing is just unprecedented. Where before, an airport may have had one owl to deal with; now, they have a dozen.”

Snowy owls are attracted to airports because the flat, open space of runways resemble the Arctic tundra they call home. The cleared land also happens to be decent habitat for hunting rodents and small birds.

“They’re a big bird,” Hitchcox said. “It becomes a tough issue for airport security.”

This winter, in a period of two weeks, at least five planes collided with snowy owls in the New York area, according to a New York Times article.

With a wingspan of about 4½ feet and standing up to 2½ feet tall, snowy owls can cause significant damage to aircraft. For example, in 2009, a snowy owl collided with plane at Michigan’s Ford Airport, causing $310,000 in damage, according to the Grand Rapids Press.

But chiefly, it’s a safety concern. In January 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 was forced to ditch into the Hudson River after Canada geese were sucked into both of the plane’s engines, causing them to lose power, according to a CNN report. While all 155 people aboard survived the accident, it certainly increased people’s awareness of the damage a large bird can cause to an aircraft.

“Any time there’s a human safety hazard, people act on it,” Hitchcox said. “And they do strike planes. I’ve heard when airplanes are taking off or landing, it creates such a vibration on the ground it actually scares up all the rodents, so the owls are more likely to be flying around.”

Airports have come up with three solutions: Scare the owls away temporarily (they tend to come right back), shoot them, or trap and relocate them.

In early December, two snowy owls were shot down at Portland International Jetport after attempts at scaring them away with fireworks were unsuccessful. Almost simultaneously, three snowy owls were shot down at New York’s JFK International Airport, an event that created a public uproar, including a lawsuit by an animal rights group, Connecticut-based Friends of Animals.

Soon after, the New York’s Port Authority made an announcement that it was working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to relocate any owls trying to hunt near runways.

Similarly, in Maine, several airports — including Portland International Jetport and Bangor International Airport — have recently hired biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Maine Wildlife Services to capture and relocate the owls hunting near runways. Using live pigeons as bait, they lure the owls into live traps, said Duchesne.

To date, seven snowy owls have been captured at the Portland airport and relocated this winter, while at least two have been captured at the Bangor airport and relocated.

“I’ve been here since 2004, and I can’t remember this cropping up before,” said Greg Hughes, marketing manager for the Portland International Jetport. “It’s an exciting thing [to have snowy owls around] because they’re pretty birds, but they still don’t mix with air travel — that’s for sure.”

The staff at Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head has dealt with three snowies so far this winter, and so far, they haven’t caused any problems. Airport staff has been able to scare the owls away from planes arriving and departing.

“There are some trees around the airport that the owls will sit up in, but where we usually see them is actually moving on the ground,” said airport manager Jeff Northgrave. “They’re being harassed by crows, usually. The crows don’t like them there at all.”

In addition to airports, the snowy owls have been seen hunting in Maine fields and marshes — places that are fairly open and are home to small mammals. But it’s at Biddeford Pool in southern Maine that you’ll find perhaps the largest concentration of these ghostly birds.

In December, Sharon Fiedler, a wildlife photographer from Bangor, received an email from the Maine Bird Google group stating that 10 snowy owls had been spotted at Biddeford Pool. Right away, she started planning a trip to the owl hotspot.

“They were lying on rooftops and sunning on the snow — it’s the craziest stuff I’d ever seen,” Fiedler said. “I’d never even seen a snowy owl. I couldn’t believe how big they were. They’re awesome.”

One of the owls dove at the ground not far from Fiedler’s feet, likely pursuing a mouse or vole.

“He came up with a great big mouthful of grass,” she recalled.

Unlike Maine’s year-round nocturnal owls, snowy owls are active day and night, making them an easy subject to observe. In the Arctic, the sun hardly sets all summer, and the winter is perpetual darkness.

Accustomed to hunting in open, treeless areas, snowies tend to loiter in highly visible spots.

“They really don’t recognize people are a threat because they haven’t seen people before,” Duchesne explained.

“They aren’t very secretive,” Hitchcox said.

“The real danger is if people get too close,” he added. “The owl will flush and use up energy, and the mice and prey the owl might eat will be driven away, too.”

So how close is too close?

“I always watch an owl’s expression, body posture,” Duchesne said. “If it starts looking at me, it’s concerned about me, and I’ll stop. I’m cautious of what I’m doing around it.”

Regardless of the attention they’re getting from airport staff and wildlife watchers, the owls seem to be finding the food they need to survive the winter, Hitchcox said, and the majority will live to return to their Arctic home this spring.

“They’ll disappear, just as they appeared,” Fiedler said.