During the first week of December, Jill Peleuses and Michelle Frazier set off on a two-day journey to the Outer Banks hoping to spy a lingering interloper - a non-native snowy owl who’d been spotted hanging out on the beach at Cape Hatteras.
“We have the fever,” said Peleuses, owner of Wild Bird & Garden in Wilmington. ”We were so excited. Neither one of us had ever seen a snowy owl before. It was the day after the Bonner Bridge closed, so it was a series of two ferries and probably eight hours of travel one way. And the whole time we’re hoping, ‘Please don’t let that bird fly away.’”
The trek may seem extreme but was well worth it for the birders, who viewed the excursion as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spy a snowy owl in person. This winter, North Carolina has seen an unprecedented influx of the birds, which are native to the Arctic tundra in Alaska and Canada and almost never fly this far south. Since October, 14 owls - white, with black markings and bright yellow eyes - have been spotted in the state, from Wrightsville Beach to Cape Hatteras and as far west as Asheville.
Biologists and birders don’t have a definitive explanation for the influx, though it’s most likely related to northern food supplies.
“It’s probably based on having a lot of success with a lot of chicks being fledged this summer and having a lot of snowy owls out there,” said Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina. “They eat rodents, and if they don’t find food farther north in their typical winter range, they come south.”
That type of winter migration, known as an irruption, occurs every three to five years, Addison said. But even during those years, snowy owls are an uncommon sight in North Carolina.
“There was an irruption last year,” Addison said. “It doesn’t usually happen every year, so it was unexpected. I would say they’re a rare bird for North Carolina, but every few years, there will be one somewhere in the state. It occurs every so often.”
The birds won’t stay here long-term, though the switch from life on the tundra to days on the beach isn’t as extreme as it may seem. Snowy owls are used to flat, windswept expanses of land, so temperatures aside, coastal locations aren’t that different from their natural habitat.
“They like open spaces, so sitting out on a sand dune or on the beach itself - that’s more what they’re used to in the tundra, rather than the woods,” Addison said. “That’s why you see them there.”
Fortunately for Peleuses and Frazier, beach habitat lends itself well to bird-watching. Within five minutes of arriving at Cape Hatteras, the duo spotted the snowy owl on an open stretch of sand.
“It was beautiful. Just very grand,” Peleuses said. “We stood on the beach and watched the owl for three hours. It was something we may never have the opportunity to see again. We’ve traveled for other birds, but never gone so far for one. I’m so glad we did go.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a reporter for the Wilmington Star News.