When Winter Arrives in New York State
The air bites hard here in November. My boots crunch the last summer leaves, dry and brittle on the quickly-freezing ground. A promise of snow hangs heavy overhead. Bare branches creak in the wind. The plumage on most birds who will tough out the winter in upstate New York has turned as dull as the landscape. There are exceptions, of course, a scarlet colored Northern cardinal, the mottled browns of rough-legged hawks, the hardy little bluebirds. And then there are the snowbirds. Or more specifically, my favorite, snowy owls.
They begin to arrive as early as late October. Traveling solo, they suddenly appear. Silently. Patches of light in distant fields – on the ground - or fence post – or high on a telephone wire – or rooftop – or sometimes, if we are fortunate, we might spot one on the side of the road, watching. Bright white patches with big gold eyes.
Not All Snowy Owls Survive the Winter
The snowies, no strangers to winter storms and frozen landscape, feed on small mammals, the mice and voles, rabbits and even wintering waterfowl, still active on the frozen grasslands and sleeping farms of New York State. By the time we humans are welcoming the first warm sun and springtime buds, they are headed north again, back to their Arctic breeding grounds. By May snowy owls are but a memory here.
Usually. But not always.
A Young Snowy Owl’s Story
As with all species, survival is most precarious for the very young and the old. This is the story of a young snowy owl. Probably in her first year.
She was found, starving and weak, by a man and his dog out for their walk last May. She did not even have the strength to move when dog put nose next to beak. Or maybe something told her, this is hope.
The Following is a Press Release from the
Friends of the Washington County Grasslands, IBA
Snowy Owl Released into Washington County Grasslands IBA (Important Bird Area)
FORT EDWARD The Snowy owl sprang from the crate and glided across the open field at Friends of the IBA’s grassland bird viewing area. She glanced back over her shoulder once before landing on a fencepost at the edge of the property, where she sat amidst falling snow checking out her surroundings.
The now healthy owl seemed relieved to be returned to the wild.
Emaciated and Dying, Snowy Owl
She was so emaciated when she was found dying of starvation she didn’t react when her rescuer and his dog approached her, said North Country Wild Care rehabilitator, Diane Hime.
Hime picked up the owl after a call to the organization’s wildlife hotline this past May. She brought the owl to Cara, a Vet Tech with over 18 years of experience rehabilitating sick or injured raptors.
“I knew from just looking at its sunken eyes that it was not well,” Hime said.
She and Cara worked around the clock to save the owl’s life, administering fluids and tube feedings every four hours for three days, until the big raptor could take solid food on her own.
Hime said the owl, a young female, hadn’t been injured and did not show signs of pesticide poisoning.
“If an owl or other raptor can’t catch prey – whether because prey is scarce, or the bird is young and inexperienced - it soon loses the energy to hunt,” said Laurie LaFond, founder and Executive Director of Friends of the IBA (Important Bird Area). “Then it starves to death.”
Friends of the IBA (FIBA) is a nonprofit land trust conserving critical habitat for endangered and threatened grassland birds. FIBA is the only nonprofit acquiring and permanently protecting critical breeding and wintering areas for grassland birds in New York State.
LaFond watched with a small crowd of volunteers and supporters waiting for Hime to release the Snowy owl at FIBA’s Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland Bird Viewing Area in Fort Edward. She said they held the release at the site to highlight the need to conserve this critical habitat.
The Washington County Grasslands IBA is critical to the survival of Short-eared owls in New York State. It supports nearly a dozen endangered, threatened and at-risk grassland bird species, including Snowy owls, and hundreds of other bird and animal species.
Snowy owls have been declining for the last two decades, primarily due to climate change. These majestic residents of the Arctic tundra are at risk of extinction if no conservation action is taken.
End of Press release.
Winter Birding on the Washington County Grasslands, IBA
The Fort Edward area and the Washington County Grasslands IBA is a perfect place to see the birds that winter in New York State. Along with snowy owls, the winter Grasslands support other raptors including endangered short-eared owls, rough-legged and Cooper’s hawks, Northern harriers and bald eagles (both breed here) as well as merlin, and kestrel. A rare Northern shrike was seen here this November. The blue birds always surprise me, they look so delicate against the winter landscape. And don’t miss the snow buntings and horned larks.
The winter is a stressful time for birds. They need an enormous amount of hard-to-find food to generate enough energy to stay warm. But that energy is also used to find more food. that is what nearly killed our snowy owl: without enough food energy, she could no longer hunt. She was starving to death trying to stay warm.
Be considerate when bird watching: Stay well away. And stay out of roosting and hunting areas. Use binoculars to watch and a telephoto lens to capture images. Do NOT use any bird calls of any kind. Keep pets out of the area or on leash, close to you.
Learn more about the birds, FIBA’s work and how you can help at www.ibafriends.org
Laurie LaFond has spent the last eight years working to restore Short-eared owls and other imperiled grassland birds to New York State. She founded the 501(c)(3) nonprofit land trust Friends of the IBA (FIBA) to conserve critical habitat these birds depend on for their survival. Thanks to an amazing group of volunteers FIBA now manages over 100 acres of prime habitat in the Washington County Grasslands IBA. They are partnering with NYSDEC and local landowners to conserve more land. LaFond serves as the organization’s executive director.
If this little lady has touched your heart, or you have a question, please leave a comment below. Thank you!
Birding the Washington County Grasslands, New York State
Finding Snowy Owls in New York State Where to go at the Washington County Grasslands
How to Watch Snowy Owls in the Wild
Guidelines & Best Practices from the Roger Tory Peterson Institute
Arctic Angels on the Dunes. How to Photograph Snowy Owls
Tips from wildlife photographer, Joe Gliozzo