ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- Snowy owls, usually residents of the Canadian Arctic, have invaded the United States — especially coastal states such as New Jersey — in numbers not seen in nearly 90 years.
One birding expert believes at least two dozen of the large, mostly-white owls — think Hedwig in the "Harry Potter" books and movies — are in New Jersey.
"There were probably three, two weeks ago at Sandy Hook, with one or two still there," said Pete Bacinski, a program director with New Jersey Audubon who says there are at least two dozen of the owls in the state. He led one group of bird-watchers at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Atlantic County Saturday "and had three different owls there, each no more than a couple of hundred yards from each other."
The owls' arrival have touched off a viewing frenzy.
"I know for a fact they are just about anywhere with open areas," said Ben Wurst, habitat program manager for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. Reports have come in from Long Beach Island to the Delaware Bay shore, and one bird was hanging around the Oyster Creek nuclear reactor in Lacey, Wurst said.
But the owls' trip has had some unpleasant moments. Three snowy owls had lethal encounters with humans at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, where birds on the field were shot by wildlife-control workers after one owl got sucked into an aircraft engine.
Public outrage at the killings prompted the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to promise Monday night that they would immediately begin a trap-and-relocate program.
More of the stunning creatures likely are on the way south in what biologists call an irruption — a dramatic migration of large numbers of birds to areas far from their normal ranges.
As New Jersey Audubon's director of communications, Pete Dunne is thrilled to have this many snowy owls throughout New Jersey.
"It's a natural spectacle, like a meteor shower, something you should see," said Dunne, who has seen the birds on trips to their native Arctic.
The number of owls spotted so far would be a record for a bird that sometimes does not show up in New Jersey for a season or two.
The iconic birds are fairly easy to see because they are active during the day, their striking plumage stands out in snowless southern landscapes and they favor wide-open settings, such as beaches, dunes and bays. They are captivating to seasoned birders as well as non-birders.
Snowies have been seen this season as far east as Bermuda and as far west as Hawaii. North Carolina, which has not seen a single snowy owl in decades, has had at least two already.
While they eat mostly lemmings in the Arctic, snowies will eat rabbits, voles, mice, gulls and ducks.
Food, combined with population numbers, are the likely reasons the birds are so far south in such large numbers, but exactly what is at work in the owl's northern environment is not clear, according to Dunne.
He and O'Brien say the southern diaspora appears to be almost exclusively young birds. Sexing snowy owls and estimating their ages depends on their plumage. Young females are heavily barred with black, males less so. Older females retain some barring, while adult male owls are, as their name implies, snowy white.
There is speculation that a boom in lemmings in the Arctic led owls to increase their production of young, and then the juveniles flew south in search of territory with less competition for food.
But there are other possibilities, said Dunne.
They include a bust in lemming production, meaning the southbound birds are famished.
But there is also a possibility that something is up with polar ice, the favored wintering place for adult female snowy owls. If the adult females find the polar ice unwelcoming, perhaps due to global warming, they would move south, displacing their own young toward southern climates.
"It's all speculation, uncertain, but pretty neat to see," Dunne said.
About the snowy owl
Feathers: Only the male owls are all white. Female are white with spots on their wings and chicks are dark and spotted.
Wingspan: About 4 1/2 feet. Weight: 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 pounds.
Diet: Unlike most owls, which hunt at night, the snowy owl hunts small animals during the day and night. They usually live off of lemmings in the Arctic.
If you see an owl: Keep a respectful distance from the bird, which may be tired and hungry. They have sharp claws and beaks.
Sources: National Geographic; The Peregrine Fund