Unusual number of snowy owls spotted this year

Their usual home is near the Arctic Circle, but every 20 years or so a large number of snowy owls make their way to Southern New England.

They're big: about 2 feet tall with a 5-foot wingspan. They're usually found perched up high or where they can see their prey.

Friends of my Facebook page started posting pictures back in November from the Charlestown Breachway and at Sachuest Point.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time you see them in open habitats along the beach and along the coastline," said Peter Paton of the University of Rhode Island's Department of Natural Resources. "Most owls are nocturnal, so you don't get a chance to view them. Snowy owls are nice because they're active during the day. They let you watch them."

When in the arctic, they feed on lemmings, which are mice-like rodents. Big lemming populations one year lead to big snowy owl populations the next, followed by a lemming shortage and a migration south.

With no lemmings to feed on here, snowy owls have developed a taste for ducks.

Snowy owls this year have been spotted closer to the population centers like at Conimicut Point in Warwick and even in Providence.

A snowy owl was picked up by the state Department of Environmental Management after getting hit by a car on Allens Avenue in Providence. It was treated and released.

Without a tagging program in Rhode Island, it's hard to tell how many are in Rhode Island this winter -- dozens, maybe more. Either way, it's a banner season.

And weather patterns, like the polar vortex arctic plunges this year, may play a factor.

"There could be some relationship, but we're just not certain," Paton said.

If looking, don't get too close. They're young, stressed from their trip, and hungry. Watch from a distance of a football field or more.

Do they lay down on their side and sleep?

"No, they stand upright," Paton said. "Shut their eyes, dream about lemmings with those lemon eyes."