Ask an Island Expert: Where can you find a snowy owl on Martha’s Vineyard?

—Brian Packish

At least one of these magnificent Arctic birds of prey turns up here most winters, and in so-called “irruption years,” when prey shortages or overpopulation drive large numbers of snowies south into the northern U.S., the Vineyard may host a half-dozen or more. The first ones typically arrive in late November or early December. Often, individuals that visit the Vineyard remain throughout the winter, sometimes staying in the same area throughout the season. They head back north any time between mid-March and, exceptionally, early May.

Normally found on tundra, seemingly impervious to snow and cold, snowy owls naturally prefer flat habitats with low vegetation. They like to have space around them, and they like to be able to see for long distances. The dune system and upper beach of East Beach on Chappaquiddick is probably their favorite site on the Vineyard, and while that area is a bit difficult to access, it’s the place to go if you want the best shot at seeing one of these birds. But snowies, when present, may also be found at Lobsterville, at any of the grassland properties along the south shore (Katama, Long Point, or Quansoo, for example), and sometimes even along State Beach between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.

Snowies almost invariably perch on the ground, often on a small hill or lump of dirt. So scan for their white, round-headed shape. Beware of look-alikes, though: Among birders, there is an entire class of humor built around objects such as plastic bags or bleach bottles that have been mistaken for snowy owls!

Snowy owls prey heavily on rodents in their Arctic habitat, but they are versatile and resourceful predators. On the Vineyard, they hunt rats along rock breakwaters; they take rabbits, voles, and small birds on grassland sites; and there is even evidence that they forage over the water at night, snatching sea ducks from roosting flocks.

You can’t ever be sure of seeing a snowy owl on the Vineyard; sometimes they simply aren’t present, and their fondness for remote, empty places makes them elusive even when they are. But it’s worth the effort to find one: Powerful predators with mysterious habits, they bring a taste of the Arctic to the Island.