Hoo-Dunit? Rhode Island left in the cold without snowy owl visitors this winter.

The magnificent snowy owl, a sometime winter visitor to Rhode Island, apparently hasn't shown up in the Ocean State this year.

Two years ago, social media was filled with striking photographs of the beautiful birds in Southern New England, but none seem to have been spotted this year.

"Have I seen any this year? The answer is 'no,' " said retired television news reporter Sean Daly, who captured multiple dramatic shots of snowy owls in Rhode Island two years ago.

A snowy owl blends in with the snow-covered branches of a tree at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge after a blizzard in January 2022.
A snowy owl blends in with the snow-covered branches of a tree at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge after a blizzard in January 2022.

Snowy owls normally live on the Arctic tundra, but in some winters, young birds will fly as far south as New Jersey and take up residence. In the winter of 2021-2022, an estimated 10 snowy owls spent the season in and around Rhode Island, according to Charles Clarkson, director of avian research for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Snowy owls were stars of social media two winters ago

"The winter two years ago was a pretty big year and one of the larger irruptions we've seen in a while," Clarkson said.

"It was beautiful," said Daly, who retired from WPRI-TV in December 2014 and now spends much of his time exploring Rhode Island's natural beauty with camera in hand. "I was getting great pictures. We all were."

Who's that? A guide to winter owls in RI

Daly, a Barrington resident, said he had considered returning to his native Washington, D.C., in retirement, but that winter of the snowy owls had a strong impact on him and helped validate his decision to remain in Rhode Island.

Like Daly, Clarkson hasn't seen any snowy owls this winter. Peter Paton, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Rhode Island, says he's received no reports of snowy owl sightings.

A snowy owl in flight near Sachuest Point.
A snowy owl in flight near Sachuest Point.

Why do snowy owls fly to Rhode Island?

Unlike bird species that migrate annually, snowy owls are irruptive; they will fly south some years, depending on the size of their population and the availability of food.

"In the years where there's a lot of competition for food, the smaller owls get pushed out," Clarkson said. "It happens after successful breeding years. The dominant birds tend to push the subordinate owls farther south. Essentially they fly until they find the requisite resources."

That search for food often leads them to open areas near the ocean that resemble their native tundra such as Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown. They're excellent hunters and can find a lot of waterfowl to their liking in Rhode Island, according to Clarkson.

What makes snowy owls special?

A "photographer's dream" is how Gordon Tempest of Cumberland describes snowy owls, which have piercing yellow eyes and mostly white feathers. While most owls are nocturnal, snowy owls can be spotted during the day, if they're here. They have a huge wing span and often fly close to the ground, said Tempest, who has photographed them in Rhode Island and Cape Cod.

"They're such a beautiful bird," he said.

A snowy owl catches some rays by the water at Sachuest Point. Unlike native species that hunt at night, snowy owls can be seen during the day.
A snowy owl catches some rays by the water at Sachuest Point. Unlike native species that hunt at night, snowy owls can be seen during the day.

Tempest noted that 2019 was also a strong year for snowy owls in Southern New England, but he hasn't seen any in the past two winters.

Winters like this can help make spotting a snowy owl more magical, according to Daly. "It's a majestic bird, but if it was around all the time, we might get numb to it," he said.

At this point, bird lovers in Southern New England will likely have to wait for next winter for a chance to see a snowy owl, but Clarkson said it's difficult to forecast whether the birds will visit.

Tempest said, "We're hoping."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Snowy owls didn't fly south to Rhode Island this winter. Here's why.