Chillin': Two Birds in One Zone
The owls have been spotted, individually, at South Point and other stretches of Ocracoke's beach. (How do we know there are two? The plethora of photos show different markings.) This rare and exciting sighting has had all the birders a-twitter, and kept the photographers busy. They are accommodating birds, and pose nicely.
According to local birding expert Peter Vankevich, these owls "appear to be healthy."
"It's really unusual for them to be this far south – their normal range is in the arctic circle," he said. "Sometimes you see them as far south as Quebec or Maine, but this year there've been twenty sightings in North Carolina."
So why have these tundra-born beauties ventured onto our sandy shores?
Apparently, Ocracoke birders are benefitting from an owl "irruption." That happens when the owls have a really successful year, with lots of fledglings. The younger owls get pushed out their normal territory in search of food. In the arctic, they primarily prey on lemmings (which, by the way, do not commit mass suicide; that's a myth created by Disney – Google it!), but when lemmings are scarce, they will eat other critters including fish and birds.
We know that the owls on Ocracoke have been feeding here – intrepid beachcomber Melinda Sutton found and dissected some owl pellets. (Owls swallow their prey whole, then regurgitate the undigestible parts like bones and feathers in compact little pellets.) The Ocracoke pellets were full of fur, feathers, and little bones.
That they're hunting our local fauna is a good sign that the owls are thriving for now, but their long-term survival is iffy. Owls carry a fungus, Aspergillus fumigates, that can remain dormant unless it is activated by stress, malnutrition, or warmer climates where the fungus can happily reproduce. The resulting disease is often fatal. (Humans are affected by Aspergillus fumigatus as well, usually with severe mold allergies.) So, the concern is that the Ocracoke owls will suffer from our warm weather.
But, says Peter, "There's a lot of wiggle room." The owls could survive here, or somewhere else outside of their range, or they could head back north. Although they don't usually migrate, older adults may have the sense to seek colder climes. Most likely, we will never know the fate of these two.
Other theories about the owls abound on the island. Harry Potter fans rejoiced to see that Hedwig did not actually die from the evil Avada Kedavra curse, but was magically transported to this enchanted isle.
Editor's note: headline credit goes to Emmet Temple. Thanks to alert reader Bob Drennen, who pointed out that it's an "irruption" not an "eruption," as I originally posted.