Flight of the Snowy Owl over Acadia National Park

This time of year on the wintry mountaintops of Acadia National Park, the serious birders come to scan the landscape for the Snowy Owl, normally a raptor of the Arctic tundra.

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Aerodynamic Snowy Owl, in flight over Acadia’s Sargent Mountain on Nov. 30, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Michael J. Good)

They may sit and observe a Snowy Owl for more than an hour at a time, as Michael J. Good has. “There is nothing quite like spending time with this charismatic bird from the North,” Good wrote, in sharing a Snowy Owl photo with us.

Or they may post photos from their field trips on Facebook, as Rich MacDonald has, not only of Snowy Owls he’s seen, but also of owl pellet degrading after the rains from a day earlier. “Snowy Owls are back!” his Facebook page proclaimed last Snowy Owl season.

snowy owls in acadia national park

This was one of two Snowy Owls that Rich MacDonald spotted the same day on Sargent Mountain. (Photo courtesy of Rich MacDonald)

MacDonald, a naturalist and field biologist, is co-owner of The Natural History Center with his wife Natalie, while Good, a Registered Maine Guide, is owner of Down East Nature Tours. Both Bar Harbor businesses lead tours year-round in Acadia, and around the globe.

Acadia National Park – well-known for peregrine falcons, the annual HawkWatch and the Acadia Birding Festival – may also rightly lay claim to being a spectacular place to catch the flight of the Snowy Owl.

Even before the 2013-2014 headlines about the sudden upsurge of Snowy Owls migrating to the US – known as an irruption – Acadia has been an occasional winter home for Snowies.

In search of Snowy Owls in Acadia National Park

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This female Snowy Owl was spotted on Sargent Mountain on Nov. 22, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Michael J. Good)

In 2012, the Friends of Acadia Journal published an article by a Bangor author who’d been wanting to see a Snowy Owl in Acadia for years.

After a couple unsuccessful attempts, up Cadillac, then Day Mountain, Catherine Schmitt finally had luck on Sargent Mountain. She’d consulted with MacDonald to improve her odds of a sighting, and it worked.

And before that, according to the online eBird.org database of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, periodic sightings of Snowy Owls have been reported in Acadia National Park all the way back to 1981.

Last season, a record 19 separate sightings were reported in Acadia National Park to the eBird database. Periodic irruptions result from a Snowy Owl population explosion in the Arctic tundra, apparently when there’s an overabundance of  lemmings, according to a Nature Conservancy science blog post.

So far this season, as of this writing, 11 separate sightings have been reported, with Good and MacDonald accounting for 9 of them. In fact, between Good and MacDonald, they’ve accounted for nearly half of the approximately 60 Acadia sightings in the eBird database as of this writing, with MacDonald reporting his first on Sargent in 2003, and Good his first on Cadillac in 1993.

It’s hard to predict from year to year what the Snowy Owl sightings in Acadia will be, or whether the bird is magnetic enough to draw a lot of visitors to the park in the dead of winter, even if some lodging, restaurants and other businesses are open year-round in Bar Harbor and other area communities, and there are other winter activities in and around the park.

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Snowy Owl twosome on Sargent Mountain, Nov. 30, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Michael J. Good)

Maybe the Snowy Owl will never generate the same curiosity as the Atlantic puffin which, although not visible from Acadia, is the wildlife most asked about, according to the park’s frequently asked questions. And maybe it doesn’t have a comeback story to tell like that of the peregrine falcons, which have successfully started breeding again on the cliffs of Acadia after being nearly decimated by pesticides.

But it’s hard not to be fascinated with this snowy white bird, which can sit still on or near the ground for hours, turning its head from time to time, observing the landscape with its yellow cat-like eyes. Because it’s used to the openness of the tundra and 24-hour light of an Arctic summer, the Snowy Owl makes no secret of when it’s on the hunt, soaring into flight with its 4- to 5-foot wingspan, in broad daylight.

Sargent and Cadillac Mountains are Snowy Owl hotspots

Below are Snowy Owl sightings in Acadia as reported to the eBird database to date. The numbers in parentheses represent the number of sightings, if there was more than one. These numbers, of course, don’t represent all the Snowy Owls that may have wintered in Acadia over the years, and could include multiple sightings of the same bird, although duplicate reports were filtered out where possible. Recent numbers may be higher as a result of the combination of increasing awareness of Snowies with the irruption that has been making headlines, and of the eBird database that allows people to document sightings by species, date and place.

Current season (through 1/24/2016)
11/2015-1/2016   Cadillac Mountain (2)
11/2015-1/2016   Sargent Mountain (8)
12/25/2015   Penosbscot

2014-2015 season
1/14/2015   Penobscot Mountain (3)
11/2014-5/2015    Sargent Mountain (12)
11/2014-4/2015    Cadillac Mountain (4)

2013-2014 season
4/16/2014    Beachcroft Path on way to Champlain Mountain
11/2013-3/2014    Cadillac Mountain (4)
12/2013-1/2014    Sargent Mountain (5)
12/14/2013    Pemetic Mountain (2)
12/5/2013    Schoodic Peninsula, Blueberry Hill parking lot

2012-2013 season
3/7/2013    Sargent Mountain

2011-2012 season
1/7/2012    Sargent Mountain (2)
1/18/2012    Schoodic Peninsula
2/29/2012    Penobscot Mountain
12/2011–3/2012    Cadillac Mountain (5)

Earlier seasons
2/6/2005    Hadlock Brook Trail
3/1/2003    Sargent Mountain
1/8/1993 Cadillac Mountain
11/17/1992    Low-tide gravel bar to Bar Island
2/14/1981    Schoodic Peninsula

Might GPS-tracked Snowy Owl named “Brunswick” fly over Acadia?

snowy owls in acadia national park

Snowy Owl over Sargent Mountain in December 2014. (Photo courtesy Michael J. Good)

As we reported last year, researchers’ attempts to catch a Snowy Owl in Maine and outfit it with a GPS transmitter, to better understand this majestic bird, were unsuccessful.

But earlier this month, researchers from the Portland-based Biodiversity Research Institute, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Project SNOWstorm, finally caught an adult female at the Brunswick Executive Airport, tagged it, and relocated it out of harm’s way in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells.

While there’s a possibility that “Brunswick,” as the Snowy was named, can fly over Acadia at some point, the GPS transmitter has shown it flying around Wells and Ogunquit the last couple of weeks. To track “Brunswick,” click through here to an interactive map.

Facts about Snowy Owls, efforts to understand them

This female Snowy Owl stayed sheltered from the wind on Sargent Mountain for about an hour. (Photo courtesy of Michael Good and Down East Nature Tours and shared on eBird.org)

This female Snowy Owl stayed sheltered from the wind on Sargent Mountain for about an hour. (Photo courtesy of Michael J. Good and shared on eBird.org)

Snowy Owls, often described by fans of the bird as charismatic, regal or mysterious, have been studied by scientists since the late 1980s, usually during the summer breeding season in the high Arctic.

But the irruption in 2013-2014, the biggest in decades, with thousands of Snowy Owls making it south for the winter, led researchers to launch a broader effort, Project SNOWstorm.

While periodic irruptions have been documented for about 200 years, this one meant a unique opportunity to track the birds with solar-powered GPS transmitters, band them and do toxicology screens and DNA analysis.

The non-profit volunteer project, the brainchild of David Brinker of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Scott Weidensaul of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Pennsylvania and Norman Smith of Mass Audubon, also maintains a blog and Web site. And it wants people to upload photos of Snowy Owls they’ve taken, particularly if they are of birds with spread wings and tail, for age and gender identification purposes.

The eBird database by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society also encourages people to sign up as contributing members to upload photos of Snowy Owl sightings, and report details of their encounters. You can even sign up for a daily Snowy Owl alert.

Here are some interesting facts about Snowy Owls, compiled from the Web sites or blogs of Project SNOWstorm, National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds:

snowy owls in acadia national park

Snowy Owl perched on Cadillac Mountain West Ridge. (Photo courtesy Michael J. Good)

  • The largest owl by weight in North America with its heavy feathers to protect against Arctic weather, the adult Snowy Owl typically weighs 4 pounds, but it can tip the scales at as much as 6 pounds
  • About the size of the Great Horned Owl, it’s about a pound heavier, and about twice as heavy as North America’s tallest owl, the Great Gray Owl
  • Found represented in cave paintings in Europe
  • Male Snowy Owls are barred with dark brown when young and get whiter with age, while females always retain some brown markings
  • Snowy Owls are territorial and may return to the same wintering site every year
  • In summer, prefers open tundra. In winter, looks for open country such as prairies, farmland, large airports, beaches, coastal marshes.
  • Unlike other owls, they are active mainly in the day, a natural result of living in 24-hour daylight during Arctic summers
  • They can eat more than 1,600 lemmings in a year
  • The oldest known Snowy Owl was banded in Massachusetts in 1988 and found again in the same state more than 16 years later
  • John James Audubon reported seeing a Snowy Owl at the edge of an ice hole, catching fish with its talons
  • An irruption of Snowy Owls occurs periodically not because there’s a shortage of food on the tundra, as is commonly believed, but because of an overabundance, leading to a population explosion and migration south. The 2013-2014 irruption may have been the largest one in nearly a century.
  • Some Snowy Owls are homebodies, rarely moving half a mile from where researchers banded them, while others ranged hundreds of miles in a few weeks
  • In winter, they feed mainly on birds like ducks, geese and gulls, hunting for them over open ocean or through cracks in sheets of ice over large lakes

(NOTE: Original version of this post published in acadiaonmyind.com)

Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

About Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

Dolores Kong and Dan Ring are co-authors of the Falcon guides Hiking Acadia National Park and Best Easy Day Hikes Acadia National Park, and also blog at acadiaonmymind.com. They’ve backpacked the 270-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, and are members of the Northeast 111 Club, having hiked all major peaks of the Northeast. Dolores is a former staff reporter at The Boston Globe. Dan is a journalist and former Statehouse bureau chief in Boston for the old Ottaway News Service and for The Republican, the daily newspaper for Springfield, Mass. They are married and live in New England.