GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Birders headed to the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday as word spread that a white snowy owl had taken up residence in a tree there.
Ocean City resident Warren Lillie Jr. was one of a small crowd who gathered on Wildlife Drive to take photos of the rare bird. He'd seen pictures, but this was his first personal encounter. He was excited.
Lillie, 63, gestured to the bird, perched on the top branch of a small tree on a sedge island about 75 feet from the crowd.
"She's sitting there, (seeming to think) like, 'What are all of these human beings doing here?'" Lillie said.
With the region in the midst of an apparently unprecedented gathering of snowy owls, a better question is, "What are all these birds doing here?"
These 3.5- to 6.5-pound birds typically live in the upper latitudes of Canada, Siberia and Russia, according to the National Geographic Society. There they kill and eat lemmings and small rodents to survive, raising their young in the spring and summer.
Even in the winter, most of the shockingly white birds do not typically stray far from the Arctic Circle.
This year is different.
A growing number of reports have identified dozens of snowy owls across the northern United States. They have been seen at the Syracuse, N.Y., airport, Hampton Bays region on Long Island, the Sandy Hook peninsula in Monmouth County and as far south as the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina.
An unconfirmed report suggests one may have even landed in Bermuda.
"It's a crazy year for them," said Don Freiday, the Forsythe refuge's visitor services manager and park ranger, who took questions from the curious birders Wednesday afternoon.
The state typically sees between zero and three owls a year. Freiday said there are at least 20 in the state this season. The one in the tree was a female that probably hatched in late spring, he said. It may stay until February or March.
Other reports have identified snowy owls on Nummy Island in Middle Township and Cape May Point.
Freiday saw this bird the day before Thanksgiving, sitting in the middle of the refuge road in the pouring rain. The bird soon flew up and displaced a peregrine falcon from a nesting box. The falcon squawked in outrage and repeatedly buzzed the owl but could not dislodge it.
Freiday said he believed the waves of snowy owl sightings across the United States were caused by either a food shortage or a population explosion. Either way, he said, "this is the most that has ever been in New Jersey in my lifetime."
While there are not as many lemmings in New Jersey, Freiday said the owls also eat other small rodents and can handle prey as large as rabbits, ducks or muskrats.
Kate Garibaldi, 28, and Shane Gorsuch, 30, traveled from Allentown, Pa., to see snowy owls. Starting off in Sandy Hook around dawn, they traveled down the coast and reached Forsythe by 2:15 p.m.
"This is kinda crazy" Garibaldi said of so many owls so far south.
As day slid into evening Wednesday, cars on the Atlantic City Expressway were distantly audible, as was the occasional NJ Transit train. But at the refuge, Garibaldi, Gorsuch and others talked in low voices so as not to disturb the bird, which occasionally squinted curiously at the crowd.
The visitor had come a long way, and they hoped it would be comfortable enough to stay awhile.
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