April 2021

Vol. 49, No. 2

Field Note: Unusual Snowy Owl Behavior

Paul M. Roberts

Snowy Owl. Photographs by the author.

My wife Julie and I were at the Parker River NWR on Plum Island, Massachusetts, on January 8, 2021, when we observed a heavily barred Snowy Owl 100 yards out in the marsh from the refuge road. At that distance, the bird appeared safe from human harassment. I was photographing it with a Nikon P1000 megazoom camera and Julie was admiring the bird through the spotting scope at 60X when she asked, “What is the owl doing?” The owl had stretched out apparently flat on its belly with its wings held tightly to its body, looking like a penguin about to slide off a rock into the water. I sagely suggested that perhaps the owl had seen an oblivious vole or mouse approach and was stretching slowly to snatch it, similar in behavior to a heron. 

Then I saw movement at the top of my camera’s field of view. A Bald Eagle was rapidly approaching from the south, perhaps 60 feet off the ground, coming out of the sun. The owl obviously had spotted the eagle and had flattened itself into a small “melting pile of snow.” The eagle flew directly overhead and past, seemingly unaware of the feathered white mound below. I took my eyes off the owl to photograph the eagle but, although the eagle was too close and moving too fast to photograph, I was able to see the bright white tail and dark body of an adult. I quickly looked back at the owl, which had craned its neck to follow the eagle, and I saw it stand up with its eyes fixed on the now fast-disappearing threat. The owl then assumed the normal relaxed vertical posture it had been in only seconds earlier. 

I have seen similar behavior by squirrels attempting to avoid a hawk, but I have never seen a Snowy react this way before.

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