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January 7, 2012

Snowy owls' visit causing stir with birders

There's been a surge in snowy owl sightings across the nation, and on the North Shore, and biologists believe the thanks goes to lemmings, those hapless little creatures known for jumping en masse off cliffs.

At least two snowy owls have been spotted with regularity over the past few weeks at Crane Beach in Ipswich and on Plum Island, most recently near parking lot 5 in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. They have drawn an enthusiastic following of bird-watchers wanting to catch a glimpse of the strikingly handsome birds.

"It's one of the really big deals in this area in the winter," said David Larson, education coordinator for Mass Audubon's Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport. "The snowy owl is always a huge draw. People love to see them. People are constantly coming through here asking what the latest information is."

As striking as owls can be in appearance, snowy owls are notable even among their own kind. Their eyes are bright yellow, and their feathers are pure white with a pattern of short, squiggled black lines that give them some camouflage on tree limbs. They can range in height up to 28 inches, with 5-foot wingspans.

Snowy owls have recently gained some fame in popular culture. In the Harry Potter books and movies, Harry's owl sidekick, Hedwig, is a snowy.

Snowy owls' main habitat is the Arctic, but they are known to migrate south in pursuit of food. This year's unusual migration is believed to be related to lemmings — rodents that vary between 3 and 6 inches long and are commonly found in the Arctic. Like all rodents, they tend to experience population booms and busts. Biologists believe the lemming population is undergoing a bust, sending snowy owls far south in search of food, such as field mice and ducks.

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