All my critter posts so far have focused on mammals, but we see so many interesting birds while sailing that I thought it was time for an avian critter post. Two years ago, on the Alaskan North Slope, we were lucky enough to see a snowy owl. We watched him for hours as he swept low over the tundra and perched on whalebones. Since it was summer in the Arctic, he was hunting in full daylight (even though it was close on midnight), and the low angle of the sun made for lovely light for photography.
The Snowy Owl is one of the largest owls, with a body about 2 feet tall and a wingspan of 55 inches (4ft 7in, or 1.4 meters). They have unmistakable white plumage with light gray bars. The females and juveniles are much more heavily barred and spotted than the males. Although the population of snowy owls is decreasing, they are still listed as Least Concern.
Range and Habitat:
The snowy owl is circumpolar, nesting on the North American and Eurasian tundra. In winter, it lives in fields, marshes, beaches, and other open areas. In North America, its breeding (and permanent – they can also spend the winter there) range is in the high arctic – northwest Greenland, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago south to Hudson Bay, and the Alaskan North Slope. In winter, snowy owls come further south across Canada and Alaska, and in winters of scarce food, they even come into the northern parts of the Lower 48.
Lemmings are an important food for snowy owls, and since lemming populations are famously volatile, snowy owls head southward in search of food when lemmings are scarce. Snowy owls are varied hunters, though, preying on other rodents – from mice to marmots – and on birds, from songbirds to ptarmigan to geese. Unlike most other owls, snowy owls hunt both at night and during the day.
Snowy owls are sometimes hunted by humans, but they have few other predators. They defend their nests and young against Arctic foxes, jaegers, and wolves, and they compete for prey with other raptors including rough-legged hawks, peregrine falcons, and gyrfalcons.
Snowy owls breed in summer in the Arctic tundra, laying 5-7 white eggs in grass-lined depressions on dry ground. During the breeding season, they can sound a harsh whistle, while they are generally silent in winter.