The street light at the crossing of Perry Street and Beach Avenue flashes a bright yellow light. The white sand is covered with a layer of white snow. Twilight warms the polar pall that has fallen over the little town by the sea with beautiful fiery red sunsets. It's winter in Cape May- a time when snow birds decide to fly south with the promise to return in a few short months. Some seek this quite, calm, serene feeling that is characteristic of Congress Hall in winter. They come to enjoy the classic American comfort food found by the roaring fire of the Blue Pig Tavern, the beautiful views, and to enjoy quality time with family and friends. This winter, while one of the coldest and snowiest winters in several years, has seen a very special guest of the snow bird persuasion: the Snowy Owl. Finding itself a nice place to perch on the roof of Congress Hall on February 1st, the rare sighting of the snowy owl has seen even the most warm-blooded mammals flocking to Cape May for a glimpse of this special creature.
Richard Crossley is an internationally-acclaimed birder and photographer residing in Cape May. According to Crossley, the state of New Jersey on average sees one or two snowy owls every winter. Currently in Cape May County alone, there are approximately ten. They have come from their breeding grounds in the Arctic in search of food. Snowy owls feed primarily on lemmings, small rodent- like creatures that reside in harsh northern winters. Their population tends to ebb and flow from year to year, with this winter seeing a particularly low lemming population. This has sent the snowy owl flocking further south in search of delicious ducks and other birds that may be around this time of year. Crossley notes that while older snowy owls tend to migrate further north, the younger population moves south in search of food when such a shortage occurs. He also notes that while a common misconception, the large influx of snowy owls to our region is not related to climate change.
As to Congress Hall's very important bird siting on February 1st, Crossley asserts that much like the rest of Congress Hall's guests that day, the snowy owl was looking for a place to rest. According to Crossley these birds "are mobile. They can be found anywhere on the beach…they hang out on high points," thus finding a nice place to sleep throughout the day on Congress Hall's roof. Snowy owls are nocturnal, but they sleep with their eyes open therefore appear to be awake by any person observing them during the day. Since they are mobile they never stay on the same beach. Snowy owls are attracted to the beaches and marshes because it is where food can be found and it reflects their northern habitat.
News about the snowy owl branched out across social media causing bird experts, lovers, and those looking for a nice winter stroll to venture out into the marshes of Cape May to get a glimpse of this phenomenon. The Cape May Birding page on Facebook connects birding fans throughout the world who come to Cape May for its unique bird watching landscape. The New Jersey Audubon Website offers information and calendars regarding nature walks occurring throughout the year. According to the site, naturalists continue to meet every Saturday in February at 8 a.m. at Cape May Point State Park to catch a glimpse of water fowl, song birds, and special guests like the snowy owl. If you choose to venture to Cape May for this singular event, Cape May's premier birding expert offers tips on how to spot the snowy owl. Richard Crossley's "The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds" shows the difference between the coloring in the age and gender of the owls. Both males and females grow increasingly whiter with age. Females retain flecks of gray in their old age while males can become completely white in their later years. Crossley expects that the owls will continue to reside in the Cape May area through March.
Everyone knows that Cape May offers a multitude of adventure in the summer months, crisp fall festivals through September and October, and magical winter wonderlands during the holidays. The snowy owl has discovered delicious marshland cuisine, quiet tranquility, and the perfect resting place for the months of January, February, and March. Those flocking to Cape May to catch a glimpse of this rare bird may discover the same as they cross the flashing yellow stop lights at the corner of Perry Street and Beach Avenue.