Florida Snowy Owl, 3rd ever spotted in state, seen at Little Talbot Island.
Florida is known for its snowbirds. Those who escape brutal winter weather elsewhere to bask in the Sunshine State.
However, traveling from their home in the Arctic tundra, a rare “irruption” of Snowy Owls has been underway during November and December 2013 in the United States. An “irruption” is an unusual migration of a large number of birds to places far out of their normal range. These huge and beautiful owls have been showing up much further south, into New England and prior to today, sightings as far south as North Carolina. But now, a touchdown in northeast Florida!
A quick 20-minute drive south this morning from Fernandina Beach to Little Talbot Island brought birding bounty — the rare sight of a Snowy Owl in Florida. (Note: A rare Harlequin Duck was seen visiting the pier area at Fernandina’s Fort Clinch State Park on December 28th, more about the duck at end of this article).
HOW RARE IS A SNOWY OWL IN FLORIDA?
For perspective, this is reportedly the third Snowy Owl ever spotted in the state of Florida since records have been kept. The first sighting was back in 1999, according to Florida birding enthusiasts. Thus, for Florida birders, a thrilling occurrence!
Having learned this morning that there was a sighting on nearby Little Talbot, I grabbed binoculars and a camera and headed off Amelia Island’s southend bridge and along Heckscher Drive. It was lightly spritzing along the way, but by around 11 am there was a steady rain falling on this rather dreary Florida winter day. It appears the Snowy Owl was initially observed yesterday, by Eric and Georgia Pourchot, on December 27, 2013 during a 4 pm visit to Little Talbot Island, according to an eBird checklist published online.
Parking in the southern beach lot at Little Talbot Island (a Florida State Park), it was a long walk across the wooden walkway, through expansive area of sand dunes, then a sandy path to reach the beachfront. Heading north along the beach, several people were coming towards me, departing with tripods, scopes and cameras. I thought I must have missed the owl. To my relief, they were leaving due to the rain, not wanting to ruin their equipment. I could see a few folks remained about a quarter mile down the beach.
When reaching the viewing spot from the beachfront, even though the owl was at least 50 yards away back in the dunes, it could be seen without binoculars (these are big birds of prey). For those less familiar with the coast, sea oats are protected by Florida law and the dunes are environmentally sensitive areas — please do not enter the dunes.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “standing nearly two feet tall and weighing about four pounds, the Snowy Owl is North America’s heaviest owl.” Females are larger than males, and this “more than likely” gal traveled to Florida and landed at the empty beachfront of this wilderness barrier island. Reportedly, determining age and sex of Snowy Owls is quite difficult. Much of the time her face was turned away, but she occasionally looked over (only four of us remained in the steady rain), and at one point shook her head to fling the rain off. Anyone trying to see Snowy Owls needs to stay back from the birds allowing plenty of distance so as not to stress them. (Being far out of their normal habitat, they may already be in a stressed condition.)
MORE ABOUT SNOWY OWLS IN THE NEWS
Snowy Owls created an uproar earlier in December at JFK Airport in New York. Three were reportedly shot by the Port Authority for fear of mingling with jet engines. Soon after, conservationists and the Audubon Society got involved and the policy was changed to “trap and relocate”.
WHAT’S CAUSING THE OWLS TO TRAVEL SO FAR FROM THEIR ARCTIC RANGE?
Why these Snowy Owls are descending so far south this winter is an intriguing mystery. The cause of the irruption might be a shortage in food supply in the Arctic (they mainly eat lemmings, a rodent). Or, maybe more owls were born this year, i.e., a possible spike in Snowy Owl population. But in the spirit of Christmastime, maybe Santa sent the owls as a present from the North Pole to delight birders along the eastern seaboard and especially Floridians. Well done, Chris Kringle! Another un-scientific theory? Perhaps some wizardry has dispersed Harry Potter’s favorite owl for a wider audience of “muggles” to enjoy.
HARLEQUIN DUCK AT FORT CLINCH STATE PARK FISHING PIER, DECEMBER 28, 2013
After seeing a Snowy Owl in Florida, hard to imagine another rare birding event in this neck of the woods anytime soon. Yet, this afternoon I headed to the north-end of Amelia Island, since a male Harlequin Duck had been spotted off the Fort Clinch fishing pier. According to The Birding List Digest online dated December 26, 2013, 10:32 a.m., the Harlequin was observed and recorded by Pat and Doris Leary.
After drinking a cup of coffee, warming up and changing into dry clothes, another birding delight soon unfolded.
I drove through the ranger station at Fort Clinch around 1:30 pm. For those unfamiliar with this state park on Amelia Island, Fort Clinch is a wonderful natural area covering the northern tip of the island, over 1,400 acres including sandy shoreline along both the Atlantic Ocean and riverbank to the west. Upon arriving at the fishing pier, walked about halfway down this half-mile-long pier (with adjacent rock jetty) and didn’t see the duck. Then, there it was off the north side of the pier. It bounced around in the waves, going back and forth, east to west alongside the pier.
Harlequins normally “winter along rocky coastlines…more than half of the eastern North American population winter in coastal Maine,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
According to the American Birding Association’s Check List Codes, it seems both the Snowy Owl and the Harlequin Duck may fall into “Code 5” for being seen in Florida, defined as follows: “Accidental. Species that are recorded five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area, or fewer than three records in the past 30 years.”
Why this lone Harlequin traveled far out of its normal range, all the way to Florida, is yet another mystery. The real snow birds, exciting to see them!