WHO KNEW that owls could swim?
Richard Guthrie, a prominent birder in this region, got a call early last November from a colleague about a snowy owl swimming in the Hudson River. The report originated with the crew and passengers aboard the USS Slater, a WWII destroyer escort, now a floating museum, moored near Albany. At the time Mr. Guthrie wondered whether the spotters had actually seen a gull, goose or swan.
But it did turn out to be a snowy owl in the southernmost part of its range. And the bird had come to rest on an outcropping of rocks on the Rensselaer side of the Hudson.
Mr. Guthrie, a resident of Greene County, tried without success to alert area wildlife rescue personnel about the bird. So he drove to Albany to see if he could help.
He located the owl with the assistance of a local animal control officer, who communicated with him by cell phone and eventually shooed the bird away from the riverbank stand of dense brush and up to higher ground. Moving “very carefully, avoiding the creature’s sharp talons,” Mr. Guthrie said he picked up the owl. Its stressed state was immediately apparent.
“The owl was very light in weight, despite being pretty wet from its dunking. I also felt the sternum bone, which was very sharp and lacking any [covering of] fat, indicating that the bird was thoroughly emaciated,” said Mr. Guthrie in his blog on the Albany Times Union website, www.blogs.timesunion.com/birding. He described the owl as “very lethargic, probably from exhaustion and hypothermia.”
A veterinarian said the bird was weak, with a minor eye injury but otherwise in good health and capable of a full recovery. Licensed wildlife rehabilitator Kelly Martin took the animal in for over three months.
“I suspect that the highly territorial peregrine falcons dive-bombed the owl to the point where it flopped into the water,” Mr. Guthrie said of the falcons that nest on the Dunn Memorial Bridge. “It’s like walking into the wrong neighborhood,” he said.
“Although owls are not known for their swimming ability, they are pretty light and can float. By flapping, the owl made it across the river to the rocks on the other side,” he said.
By early March, the owl was ready to return to the wild, and on a mild, cloudless day last week, Ms. Martin released the owl after feeding it a going-away meal of two mice. The bird, a female, flew a short distance into the fields of the Coxsackie Grasslands Preserve off Route 9W in northern Greene County, part of the Greene Land Trust, before ducking out of sight into a depression in the landscape.
“A northern harrier hawk immediately flew in and gave a few low buzzes, as they do to any owl that happens into their territory, then left the owl to rest up and take in her new surroundings,” said Mr. Guthrie.
Before the bird was released, he banded it with a US Fish & Wildlife band for future tracking. He anticipates the owl may head north to the Canadian or Greenland tundra, the snowy owl’s breeding grounds, or beyond, where she’ll arrive in time for mating season.
Snowy owls, which can live up to nine and a half years in the wild, are highly nomadic, wintering in arctic tundra and northern agricultural lands, depending on where they can find food.
While sightings are not common here, snowy owls often range as far south as Cape Cod, Long Island, the New Jersey coast and, rarely, as far south as Virginia. Some experts speculate that areas of the Eastern U.S. shoreline resemble the birds’ arctic habitat. The birds also show up in grasslands, like the preserve in Greene County, and in cities, possibly because the buildings offer high perches like the cliffs of Greenland and Labrador.
WHO KNEW that owls could swim?