01/10/14 7:00am
01/10/2014 7:00 AM

MICHAEL LOTITO PHOTO | The snowy owl is best known for its white feathers and catlike yellow eyes. It’s also the continent’s heaviest owl, weighing between three and six pounds. Adults have a wingspan between four and five feet. They’ve been spotted as far south as Florida. This bird was photographed last month at a Jamesport farm.

Avid bird lovers and nature buffs alike have been looking to the skies more frequently in recent weeks, trying to spot the long-admired snowy owl — whose population is “irrupting” this season, experts say.

An irruption is a spectacular, unscheduled migration of large numbers of birds to areas they usually bypass, said Don Bindler, an avid East End birder. While it’s not uncommon for snowy owls to migrate to the North Fork, this season’s irruption has been one of the largest on record, with as many as several hundred birds migrating from their breeding grounds in northern Canada’s tundra to the northern coastlines of the United States, Mr. Bindler said.

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | A snowy owl on a Southold jetty.

Locally, the birds have been spotted as far west as the former Grumman property in Calverton to as far east as Orient State Park and Plum Island, according to a joint website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, www.ebird.org, which maps bird sightings. According to the map, snowy owls have also been spotted as far south as Bermuda and Florida — far beyond where they are normally spotted in the states.

The magnificent birds spend their summers north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, ptarmigan and other prey in the 24-hour daylight, according to Cornell.

Unlike most owls, which are nocturnal, the snow white bird is active during all hours — making them easier to spot.

In years with overly abundant prey, the birds can raise double or triple the usual number of young, said Dr. Kevin McGowan of Cornell.

He said that while experts don’t know for sure why the birds are migrating south in such high numbers, a population boom could explain it.

“One reason may be that it is a real big production year,” possibly combined with conditions that aren’t “so good up north and they are having a hard time finding food — or it could be both,” he said.

A single bird may eat more than 1,600 lemmings in one year, Cornell researchers said.

The owls hunt seagulls, ducks, and other small animals on the East End, swooping down to pick up prey with their large, black talons, said Michael Lotito, a nature photographer who regularly contributes his work to the North Fork Audubon Society. So far this season, Mr. Lotito said he has photographed 14 different snowy owls throughout the East End.

“They travel well over 1,000 miles to get here, and because of the distance they generally come down here weak and starving, Mr. Lotito said. “For that reason it’s important that people do not chase them but choose to simply observe them.”

He said that, if approached too closely, the birds lengthen their necks, their first warning sign that they feel danger. They may also simply take flight, fleeing to a safer area.

The birds have been known to stay in one area anywhere from six to 12 hours, and if left undisturbed they can stay in a one-mile radius for the entire winter — provided there is enough food, he said.

Generally, the youngest birds, about a year old, will migrate from the arctic first, pushed out by their elders when fighting over territory, the Cornell researchers said.

The snowy owl is the continent’s heaviest owl, weighing between three and six pounds, depending on what they have had to eat at a certain time, and adults have a wingspan between four and five feet. Males are typically smaller than females.

“They are very quiet and calculating,” Mr. Lotito said, adding that, like all owls, they are silent in flight because of the configuration of their wing feathers, allowing them to surprise and pounce on their prey.

They can down a rodent headfirst in a single gulp, according to Cornell.

Aside from their snow-white feathers, the birds are best known for their cat-like yellow eyes.

KATHLEEN KMET BECKER PHOTO | A snowy owl at Orient Beach State Park just before noon on Jan. 5.

Male owls are white with dark brown spots when they’re young, which disappear as they age. Females keep some dark markings throughout their lives.

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of the coastal birds, Mr. Lotito recommends going to Orient State Park, along the shoreline. Snowy owls like open dune areas and open fields, he said.

This Saturday, the Group for the East End will be holding an informational event about owls common to the North Fork, giving participants the chance to dissect owl pellets at Down Farm Preserve on Main Road in Cutchogue and learn about their diets.

The event, geared toward families, will also provide information on the snowy owl and its abundance this season. A $5 donation per family is suggested. For event times and more information contact Christine Tylee at (631) 765-6450 ext. 208.

cmiller@timesreview.com

01/05/14 8:00am
01/05/2014 8:00 AM

LUKE ORMAND COURTESY PHOTO | The American robin is among the birds locals can expect to see during the colder months. It will usually make its appearance here toward the end of winter.

Entering the deep freeze of a North Fork winter gives year-round residents a chance to enjoy some of the natural beauty that lies hidden behind bushes and brush during warmer weather. That’s the handsomely feathered birds whose colors are all the more vibrant against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

While most residents can spot the red cardinal, are a number of other species are worth catching a glimpse of — some of which flock to our area only during the winter months, experts say.

“A lot of them have distinctive plumage or something unique to them and, if you look closely, they all have their own beauty,” said Tom Damiani, a member of the North Fork Audubon Society for nearly two decades. “You realize that cardinals are not the only bird that’s striking.”

LUKE ORMAND COURTESY PHOTO  |  A Cedar waxwing.

To attract these species — and help them survive winter’s bite — consider the following tips, which start with supplying basic birdseed. Black oil sunflower seed, rich in oils and sized just right, is the best choice for most birds, no matter the season, Mr. Damiani said.

“The oils are good for overall nutrition and because birds have very fast metabolism, a food source high in oil is a good thing,” he said.

Another oil-potent option is suet — rendered beef fat hardened into small cakes. The cakes are often filled with seeds, berries and other goodies and can be hung in small baskets, he said. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, many birds digest and metabolize animal fat easily. Given the likelihood of bacteria growth, however, suet is best served when temperatures are below freezing.

Mr. Damiani said he recommends bringing suet cakes inside at night; otherwise, you may find that creatures of the four-legged type have ran off with them — “basket and all.”

Not all birds are attracted to feeders that hang or perch on a stand, he said, so consider spreading feed across the ground as well. A mixture of cracked corn, white millet and the black oil sunflower seed should do the trick, Mr. Damiani said.

Nancy Gilbert of Jamesport, a former teacher with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s master gardener program, said the season’s chill can create desert-like conditions for birds when fresh water sources freeze over.

“Water is the most important thing, because they need to keep their feathers clean and have a source to drink,” she said, adding that birds need to bathe in the winter, as keeping feathers clean helps maintain body heat.

“If they can’t puff up their feathers and create an air pocket between the feathers, they can’t stay warm,” Ms. Gilbert said.

Both she and Mr. Damiani recommend installing bird baths, which can also be outfitted with small heaters to keep water from freezing. Heaters are inexpensive to buy and cost pennies a day to run, Mr. Damiani said.

Providing both food and water can make your yard a hangout for the flighty bunch, which during the winter includes white-throated sparrows, fox sparrows, cedar waxwings and robins, the experts said.

Ms. Gilbert said those blessed with patience could eventually train one type of bird to eat from the palm of their hand.

The black-capped chickadee, a tiny songbird described by Cornell as having “curiosity about everything,” is very common on the North Fork, she said.

The chickadees have a black cap and bib, white cheeks and a gray back, tail and wings. If you notice them visiting a feeder, stand by patiently with some feed in your hand, she said.

“They will come and sit on your hand. When they do, you realize how insubstantial these little things are,” Ms. Gilbert said. “They are just little bits of fluff.”

Once you’ve attracted the birds to the yard, consider creating a safe haven where they can spend the night, which may make them more likely to stick around. A brush pile or even a dried-up Christmas tree will give the birds a place to hide from predators and help keep them warm, Ms. Gilbert said.

“When the snow covers up a brush pile it creates all kinds of air pockets that will help to keep them warm,” she said. “It’s a great place for them to spend cold nights and provides a place for them to duck into to hide away from predators, like the hawks who are after them.”

Then there are cats.

“People who have outdoor cats shouldn’t try and feed birds,” Mr. Damiani cautioned. “You’re setting the birds up; it’s just cruel.”

cmiller@timesreview.com