Rare snowy owl snowbirds graces Little Talbot Island
Florida is known for its “snowbirds,” people who migrate here for the warm weather during winter months.
But another snowbird of the authentic nature has been sighted on Duval County’s Little Talbot Island, far from its usual Arctic haunts.
The snowy owl (bubo scandiacus) has been seen on the island’s eastern beach since Friday. This is only the third sighting ever in Florida, according to state officials. So this “very impressive” bird with big talons is drawing lots of people, Little Talbot park services specialist Peter Maholland said.
“Typically its range is Canada and the Arctic, and this is a rare sighting,” he said. “One of our local birders saw it and word got out, and people from all over the region and different states are coming out to see this.”
Duval Audubon Society member Caroline Wyatt has been out to see this immature female owl. An avid birder for three decades, she had seen only two others — 1997 in Alaska and a year ago on St. Simons Island, Ga.
“I never dreamed one would get into Florida, which is really, really rare,” said Wyatt, who lives in Fernandina Beach. “It is very striking and has what I call a bowling ball head. … I couldn’t believe it was in the sand dunes at the island.”
The big (up to a 5-foot wingspan) bird is the largest North American owl, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It spends summers north of the Arctic Circle, hunting lemmings and ptarmigan, then usually migrates south into Canada and northern states in winter. The adult male is normally pure white with black wing specks. Females get more black wing striping.
In Florida, a snowy owl has been documented in December 1999 at St. George Island State Park off Apalachicola and January 2012 around St. Augustine, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Karen Parker said. Experts say its southern migration may be due to a population explosion in the cold white north and a resulting reduction in their prey.
Whatever the reason, when Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge ranger and photographer Cindy McIntyre heard about the owl, she headed to the state park at 12157 Heckscher Drive on Tuesday.
“There was a whole row of photographers out there at a respectable distance, which was nice,” McIntyre said. “Once she [the owl] preened and turned around — that lasted only a few seconds. Then she decided it was time to go and flew right at us, then flew to a sandbar behind us. She was big and she was beautiful.”
Maholland suggested anyone interested in seeing the bird do so soon because no one knows how long it will stay. Visitors should stay several hundred feet away so the owl isn’t spooked and stressed out.