Over the past few weeks, Ipswich has been visited by some rather impressive royalty of the feathered persuasion. The chance to catch a glimpse of these avian arrivals has coaxed many to venture out into the cold bleakness of the New England midwinter. Those lucky enough to make a sighting will tell you it was worth the effort.
The better known of our two visitors is the Snowy Owl. Hailing from Canada’s far north, these regents of the bird world are the largest owl (by weight) in North America. Adult birds can grow up to a height of twenty-seven inches and have a wingspan of four to five feet! These stunning raptors travel south in the winter, but only come as far as Ipswich if there is a shortage of their primary food, lemmings.
This year, three Snowy Owls have taken up seasonal residence in the dunes along Crane Beach. Sadly, one female was found dead (she appears to have starved to death, something a visiting birder hypothesized may have been the result of a disease caught from pigeons a few towns away), but the other two owls have been drawing intrepid birders of all ages, even on the most frigid days.
I have been told that seeing a Snowy Owl is good luck. I choose to believe this is true, although owls are not always perceived to be harbingers of good tidings.
It is because the warrior goddess Athena chose the owl as her companion that we associate these birds with wisdom and learning, but they carry other folklore on their silent wings as well. In many cultures, owls are symbols of prophecy and intuition. In some traditions, these noble birds are thought to be omens of death.
However you choose to interpret their presence, owls deserve respect simply for the longevity of their species. Scientists have discovered owl fossils dating back to the Miocene era. Owls are also featured in 30,000-year-old European cave paintings, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Mayan murals. This is a bird with a long history.
Our other feathered tourist is, though less striking to look at, causing even more of a stir than the Snowy Owls. If you have driven down Argilla Road recently, you may have noticed a roadside gathering of well-equipped birders training their highly magnified gaze on a distant flock of Canada Geese.
It wasn’t the Canada Geese that had these birders all in a flurry; it was a small, white goose that had taken up with the flock – a Ross’s Goose. Like Snowy Owls, Ross’s Geese breed on the tundra of far northern Canada, primarily around Hudson Bay. Their winter migrations take them to parts of California and New Mexico.
The misplaced fellow hanging out with the local flock of Canada Geese is what birders refer to as an “accidental winter vagrant.” We will never know what caused him to be a couple of thousand miles off course, but dozens of birders are glad he decided to drop in.
Apart from anomalous cases like our “vagrant” tourist, most geese have exceptional navigational skills. They are also fiercely loyal (most species form lifelong pairs) and protective (don’t ever mess with a mama goose). If one goose in a flock is injured and unable to fly, one of its companions will stay behind. For these reasons, geese are associated with fidelity, fellowship, and teamwork.
Whether you get to see them or not, it’s nice just to know that these fascinating birds are about town. With their snow-white feathers and arctic heritage, they bring a little extra magic to winter just when we need it most.