Originally commissioned by and published on the Boating Times Long Island site, February 1, 2015.
Snowy Owls of Long Island
February 1, 2015 by Heidi Lechner ·
As a nature photographer who loves the beaches and other shorelines, winter doesn’t always appeal to me as much as the other seasons. However, the annual return of the snowy owl is one of the things I anxiously anticipate as the weather grows increasingly colder.
Snowy owls spend much of their time in the northernmost parts of North America, breeding and living in areas including Alaska and Canada. During the winter, however, the owls migrate south to look for food along the entire northeastern seaboard of the United States. So while we’re shivering and inclined to stay indoors all winter, the presence of visiting snowy owls is a reason for Long Islanders to spend more time outdoors.
With their golden eyes emulating a fierce sunset and their brown-spotted, angelic white feathers, snowy owls are among the largest of North American owl species — their height and length can each measure up to 27 inches; their length with wing span can measure up to five and a half feet!
Highly nomadic, snowy owls can be easy to spot during the day if you are patient and have a keen eye. They have been sighted in western locations including JFK airport and the Rockaways, and as far east as Orient Point and Montauk. They love to perch in the high dunes along the beach, or rest in the marsh, as they alertly await their prey (they feed on small to medium-sized mammals, particularly lemmings, fish, and other birds). They often fly in pairs though I have seen them split apart to hunt.
Unlike other owl species who camouflage themselves and may only be active at night, snowy owls hunt all day, allowing me to photograph them in the best light. When their hunger is sated, they seem to become quite cozy, resting upon the dunes at the beaches, looking as if they are falling asleep as day turns to night. As with all wildlife, be wary and keep your distance no matter the time of the day or the owls’ level of activity. This advice holds true if you wish to photograph them (and other amazing wildlife) — keep your distance, respect them, and if possible, invest in a long lens for your camera so you don’t disturb them or their nests. Snowy owls are keen hunters with sharp beaks and predatory talons; they are protective parents who will actively and aggressively protect their nests.
The snowy owls, protected by the Migratory Bird Species Act, are not classified as an endangered species. However, their numbers are declining due to reduction of their food sources, climate change, collisions with cars, power lines, and hunters.
Story and photos by Heidi Lechner
By Heidi Lechner