Running with snowy owls

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Photo by Carl Jappe

By Rebecca Pugh

If you are running towards the eastern end of Crane Beach, look up. You just might see a huge white bird, possibly with grey and brown markings, flying through the dunes. If it glides with a slow wingbeat (count a full second, down and up), you can smile to yourself. You are running with snowy owls.

The snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) spends summers in the Arctic tundra. It builds its nest directly on the ground, usually on a high spot where it can supervise the neighborhood.

Sometimes, in the arctic, a father snowy will catch dozens of lemmings and stack them in a circle around the nest. When this abundance is offered, the mother snowy settles down in the middle of it all, lays a dozen eggs, and feeds lemmings to the chicks as they hatch.

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Other times, when the lemming population is low, many snowy owls don’t build nests, preferring not to try to raise young without their favorite food.

Snowy owls range from nearly pure white (which tends to be male-identified) to white with brown or grey patterns (which tend to be female-identified or hatch-year).

Snowy owls are on the 2016 North America’s Bird Watch list, which means that they are at risk or endangered. Partners in Flight estimates a world-wide breeding population of 200,000. (For comparison, there are approximately 400,000 elephants left in the world).

Concerns for the owls’ survival focus on climate change, pesticides, diminishing open space, and the risks inherent in migration.

In the midst of extinction concerns, though, we have one rare and recently arrived snowy owl minding her own business, hunting mice at the beach.

Year after year, she departs the Arctic Circle, flies 3,200 miles, and quietly arrives in Ipswich.

Most people give her a wide berth. You can sometimes see her standing on a little hill in the dunes, watching for prey. She prefers not to get close to people. Giving her privacy is one of the ways to help her survive.

My favorite way to recognize her is to remember the owls in the Harry Potter movies. If you see the Hedwig wing beat, you know it for sure. You are in one of the few places in the world where you get to do this, so breathe, and run fast. You are running with snowy owls.


Rebecca Pugh and Carl Jappe are both Ipswich residents. Read more Running With Birds here.