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Male & Female Snowy Owls

Dear Bird Folks,

I was driving on Nauset Beach the other day when I came upon a Snowy Owl. Can you tell from my photo if this particular owl is a male or a female? Also, do you think we’ll see as many owls this year as we did a few years ago?

– Doug, Harwich, MA


Oh, no, Doug,

Are you really one of those people who is simply too lazy to walk on the beach and think it’s better to drive a big chunky truck instead? And instead of feeling the cold fresh air on your face, you think it’s better to sit in your truck cab with the heat on and the radio playing? Are you really one of those people? Well, if you are, could you give me a ride out there sometime? Taking long walks on the beach might sound romantic for people on dating sites, but it’s a little overrated for a birder loaded down with cameras, binoculars and a spotting scope. At my age, a little heat and a place to sit while birding are more my style.

Raise your hand if you remember the historic Snowy Owl invasion during the winter of 2013/2014. If you didn’t experience it, or don’t remember or simply don’t feel like raising your hand, let me refresh your memory. Four years ago just about every Cape town had a resident Snowy Owl. But what the folks are still talking about was the owl that spent the winter on the marsh near West Dennis Beach. Another noted snowy was in Chatham. Normally, when these birds migrate south, they seek out coastal dunes or open grasslands. But this one particular owl came to a lady’s yard, where it fed on squirrels…and the lady didn’t mind one bit.

Because of that historic invasion, Cape Codders have become spoiled and now they expect to see Snowy Owls every winter. Customers regularly ask if “the owl is back in West Dennis?” It’s as if they are talking about the swallows returning to Capistrano. That’s not how it works. A Snowy Owl incursion is triggered by factors too numerous to discuss right now, but it’s related to breeding success, lemmings and Mercury being retrograde (maybe). No offense to West Dennis Beach, but I’m sure the owls would much rather have stayed in the peaceful isolation of the tundra. They don’t need to wake up each day and face a stream of curious onlookers; armed with tiny iPhone cameras. Celebrities like Tom Brady, Beyoncé, and me, are used to that kind of attention, but owls not so much. They don’t really dig the limelight. I was actually surprised that the West Dennis owl stayed around as long as it did, and I was convinced that once it left it would never return. Well, guess who’s back. Also, guess who’s not very good at predicting bird behavior. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Tom Brady or Beyoncé.

It does seem that this will be another good year for seeing Snowy Owls. Over the past few days I’ve received a steady stream of owl photos from all over the Cape. Most of them were spotted on isolated sections of Race Point, Coast Guard Beach, Sandy Neck, and, as you already know, Nauset Beach. Five owls were also seen on nearby Duxbury Beach and I almost accidently stepped on one (really) while I was looking for Snow Buntings on Plymouth Beach. (That will tell you how observant a birder I am.) But the Snowy Owl everyone has been waiting for is back at West Dennis Beach. I doubt it’s the same bird as years ago, but maybe. Either way, better get those iPhones charged up.

Identifying a male Snowy Owl from a female is sometimes easy, while other times it’s nearly impossible. The females are larger than the males, but unless the two birds are side-by-side that information isn’t much help. That leaves us with plumage differences, but there’s a problem with that, too. We think of Snowy Owls as being big all-white birds, but, in fact, they are typically covered in dark barring. As the males age, they become less barred and more white. Eventually, they’ll turn pure white, looking like fluffy pillows…fluffy pillows with bright yellow eyes. The females, on the other hand, tend to remain barred throughout their lives. Thus, if you see a pure white owl, it most certainly is a male. But if you see one covered in dark barring, it’s a female…or maybe not. Here’s where they get you. Young males also have barring and thus look very much like their mothers. Sorting out the two genders can be so challenging that some field guides don’t even try. They simply label similar owls as adult female/young male. So, if the books can’t sort them out, the rest of us have no chance. In other words, call the owl in your photo whatever you want. I’m sure it won’t be offended.

Here’s the part where I have to remind everyone that it’s best to watch the owls from a distance. Much like speed limit signs and dog leash laws, I realize that this warning will also be ignored, but I have to try. These birds are thousands of miles from their normal range and any bird that allows close approach isn’t being friendly. More likely it’s stressed and exhausted. The last thing it needs is for some bonehead with a camera to force it to fly, just so he or she can get a flight shot. Give the birds some space. Also, try not to step on one. They hate that. (That last line was for me.)

It indeed looks like another good year for seeing Snowy Owls on Cape Cod, Doug. Take lots of photos, but only from a respectable distance. And if you aren’t sure what a respectable distance is, pick me up the next time you are driving out on the beach and I’ll help you…as long as you have the heat on.