Cars and trucks suddenly pull off the road. People with cameras and binoculars rush around for prime viewing locations, and grown adults get giddy.
Is it a celebrity sighting in the Cape Region? Well, kinda. It's become the area's Great Snowy Owl Quest. It's the ultimate Christmas present for local birders: a chance to see their first snowy owl.
Several owls have made an early-winter stop in the Cape Region, and the large, white-feathered visitors have taken on celebrity status. The first owls appeared in Delaware around Thanksgiving, and in the Cape Region about two weeks later. Owls have been spotted at the Cape Henlopen State Park point, near Savage Ditch Road, the Indian River Lifesaving Station and around Indian River Inlet.
Scientists at Project Snow Storm call the southern flights of the owls an invasion or irruption; it's the biggest irruption in four or five decades. Snowy owls mostly live their lives in the high Arctic. On rare occasions, they come flooding down from the northlands.
The website eBird is calling this migration one of the most dramatic natural history spectacles in the Northeast. So far, reports to eBird on Delaware sightings total 12 pages.
Snowy owls usually migrate away from their Arctic breeding grounds, but rarely fly as far south as they have this year. According to eBird, sightings have been made as far south as Florida with an abundance of sightings in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey.
John Hoyt, president of the Sussex Bird Club, said the irruption is unprecedented and is giving birders a chance at a life-bird sighting, one that has not been seen before. It was that way for Hoyt who saw his first snowy owl the week before Christmas at the Lifesaving Station near Indian River Inlet. “It was exciting; it's an amazing bird,” he said.
Hoyt said the sightings are attracting birders from other areas. Last week, he saw several Pennsylvania birders looking for an owl in the dunes at Cape Henlopen State Park.
An irruption of snowy owls
At least 20 snowy owls have been spotted in Delaware so far this winter, said Bill Stewart a director with the American Birding Association and vice president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society. “But these are just the ones being reported,” he said, adding the owls could stay in the area into March.
“At some point their hormone to breed kicks in, and they will head back north,” he said.
Stewart, who will be presenting a Jan. 12 program on snowy owls to the Sussex Bird Club, said the owls are extremely nomadic. “The owls you are seeing this week are probably not the same ones you saw last week,” he said. “No two owls do the same thing.”
Stewart said snowy owls have no trouble finding food in the Cape Region. Besides feeding on mice and voles, hunting at night they are able to grab migrating ducks in the area's wetlands. “They can also take birds out of the air,” Stewart said.
Why are the owls here?
So why are the snowy owls here in unprecedented numbers? Stewart says the most widely held theory has a lot to do with lemmings, the owl's main source of food in its Arctic breeding grounds.
Scientists say there was a huge lemming population explosion during the summer of 2013, which allowed for an unusual number of snowy owl births. “There can be up to nine owls in one nest,” Stewart said. “We think so many are coming south to look for food. Most of the owls we are seeing are ones born this past summer.”
Owls have been here before
Catching a glimpse of a snowy owl in Delaware is not unprecedented, but the number of owls in the area is off the chart, Stewart said. “It's a once in a lifetime event,” he said. “Every year, we expect to see a snowy owl; I mean just one,” he said.
Snowy owl sightings in South Carolina, Florida and even Bermuda are unheard of.
In upstate Delaware, owls been spotted several times along Lukens Drive in New Castle near the Delaware River. Stewart said that's where he saw an owl in early December; about 100 yards from the Reach Academy for Girls.
“Some girls were out for recess and about 40 of them joined with me to get their first sighting of a snowy owl,” he said.
Stewart reminds owl enthusiasts to keep their distance. “There are a lot of people out there who are Harry Potter fans who want to see a snowy owl up close,” he said. “The closer you get, the more stressed it makes the owl, and it will fly away.”
Stewart said most birders are more than happy to allow people a view through their binoculars or spotting scopes. “Enjoy them from a safe distance,” he said. “We are thrilled to host these rare birds. The Delaware birding community is really enjoying this. We are also using this event as a chance to educate people in the field. It's okay to look, but there is no need to get close.”
Local photographers in search of owls
Meanwhile, local birders and nature photographers are on the hunt. Most have been successful on their quest thanks to owl sightings posted on the internet. A sort of underground owl sighting network has been established.
Tony Pratt, a well-known nature photographer from Lewes, on Dec. 21 captured an owl perched on a dune and in flight in Cape Henlopen State Park. Pratt said he was able to see an owl on two other occasions, but the lighting was not right. Everything came together on that early-morning Dec. 21 shoot.
Using an 80-400 mm lens and tripod, Pratt situated himself about 120 yards from the owl. “Birds get upset with eye contact, so I stayed behind the lens and camera and slowly moved in,” he said.
He was stopped about 40 yards from the owl and starting shooting. Eventually, the owl flew off as Pratt snapped about a dozen action shots with the owl's wings up and down. Pratt's photos are posted on his website at tonypratt.com.
Pratt has seen snowies in the area before, and he has photographed them as well. Over the years, he has seen an owl in Cape Henlopen State Park, near the Lifesaving Station and one that sat on the grass for several days at the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. “All of the photos I took were from too far away,” he said. “These were my first really good snowy owl shots.”
Rehoboth Beach photographer Sue Eberhart was able to capture a shot of an owl last week near Savage Ditch thanks to a tip from a fellow Coastal Camera Club member. “I walked out on Coin Beach, and two fishermen pointed to the approximate location. I was lucky enough to see it and take some photographs,” she said. “You could not see him from the beach as the owl was in a low spot between the dunes. It truly was a treat.”
Pratt has his own more romantic, less scientific idea why the snowies are coming south in such great numbers. “Maybe it's their second sense to get out of the cold in the Arctic this winter,” he said.
He could be right. Despite the cold predicted Jan. 6-7, it's nothing compared to the bone-chilling, sub-zero – even record-breaking – temperatures across the northern United States and Canada.
For more information go to: projectsnowstorm.org
Snowy owls are topic of bird club meeting
The Sussex Bird Club will meet at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 12, in the Cadbury at Lewes auditorium on Cadbury Circle. Bill Stewart, director of partnerships and marketing for the American Birding Association, and vice president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society, will examine this year's historic snowy owl irruption into the Delmarva Region and beyond.