WEST PARIS— Rumor of the snowy owl spread quickly.

Inside Western Maine Steel in West Paris, MaryAnne Knowlton could see cars pulling off onto the shoulder of Route 26, blinkers flashing a warning as tractor-trailers about their business roared by, oblivious to the spectacle.

She didn’t blame them, even when a procession of cars lined the road, looking for all the world like an accident had brought traffic to a halt; Knowlton was curious too.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on him,” she says.

Past hills mined into sand dunes, a spattering of economic development and lone homes, on an innocuous if panoramic stretch of road – the background of a wide field spliced by the Little Androscoggin River is framed by windmills sprouting from distant, green hills—the white owl sits perched atop a telephone pole. He’s been there for over a week.

Residents first noticed the bird last week, and began lining up and making special excursions just to gawk at the sight.

West Paris’ new fowl is believed to be a remnant of a massive influx of owls flown down from the Arctic following the largest population boom in 40 years, according to Doug Hitchcock of the Maine Audubon Society.

Fueled by an irruption in the population of lemmings—the owls’ primary prey—snowy owls had a record population bloom, much of which then made the annual migration south in search food and space.

This year is odd not for the daytime sightings—snowy owls, unlike other owl specie, hunt during the day —but for their sheer number and the late duration of the birds’ stay, Hitchcock says.

After growing fat and strong hunting south of the Arctic for a season, young males typically begin migrate north by March and have all but disappeared by April.

Giving rise to the late departure is not last winter’s harsh and prolonged season, but instinct: given the population irruption, competition for food is greater. As a young male, the West Paris owl isn’t likely destined to breed this year, so he’s not speeding home.

“He can’t compete with adults that know what they’re doing. It comes down to food availability in the nesting season,” Hitchcock says.

No one really knows how many of the birds migrated south over the winter—it may be in the hundreds—but the effects of the influx have been clear.

“I think the last count I heard was 19 owls had to be removed from the [Portland International] Jetport. I think most years they might get one, maybe two,” he says.

The prolonged stay may be atypical, but it’s not harmful to the bird. In spite of their colorings, the spring’s natural foliage isn’t a deterrent to snowy owls.

Snowy owls flourish given a high perch, which explains its chosen workstation. As predators atop their food chain, snowy owls swoop down suddenly from above, seizing unsuspecting prey in their talons.

The natural trajectory of the owls life-cycle encourages yearly sightings: owls eat the lemmings, give birth and since food is now scarce, fly south in the search for more meals while the lemmings repopulate. What’s unusual, Hitchcock says, is the bird should be home by now.

“How cool would that be to say you saw a snow owl in Maine in June? The latest date I’ve heard is the first week of May.”

The West Paris sighting isn’t the only occurrence lately. Norway resident Mary Van Nest, who along with husband Robert hold an annual migratory bird walk on their 80-acre Pikes Hill Farm, said a snowy owl was seen circling her property shortly before one appeared in West Paris.

Sending the local song birds scattering, it spent the day perched atop a bird house, trapping a lone, likely petrified sparrow inside.

The sightings are a boon for many a would-be birdwatcher, though they aren’t the only ones enjoying the view: attaching transmitter’s to several owls along the coast, Hitchcock says scientists were startled after tracking some unusual coastal nighttime hunting excursions.

“[Researchers] realized the birds were going out at night and picking off ducks that were sleeping in the bay, which is just awesome and not a recorded behavior for these winter owls,” he says. “Ducks aren’t small. It’s a big meal for them.”


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