A snowy owl flies over Drakes Island in Wells on Wednesday. Snowy owls are common in the area in winter, but are very rare at this time of year.
© Ben McCanna
A snowy owl flies over Drakes Island in Wells on Wednesday. Snowy owls are common in the area in winter, but are very rare at this time of year.
Perched high above a quiet beach scene, a snowy owl has been drawing a steady stream of birders, wildlife photographers and interested onlookers to the Drakes Island community in Wells for the past month.

"They're not usually here this late. The latest I had seen one before was early May," said Bryan Isaacs, a birder of more than 30 years who drove to Wells from New Hampshire on Wednesday to get a glimpse. "This is so rare."

The owl spends most of its day sitting on chimneys and poles in the neighborhood, its stark white feathers making it easy to spot. According to the beach volunteers working at Drakes Island, the bird-watching community has given the owl the nickname "Snowball."

Connor Hood, a beach monitor for the town of Wells, said he, too, was surprised by the owl's late stay but welcomed the excitement that it has brought to the beach community.


"We had a big crowd come yesterday to photograph it," he said. "We've really enjoyed it."

Some local residents and bird-watchers have expressed concern that the owl's extended stay might be a sign it's sick or injured. However, experts from Maine Audubon and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife confirmed that the owl seems healthy and content.

Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist at Maine Audubon, said that although most snowy owls have migrated north to the Arctic by this time of year, there have been other sightings over the years.

"It is unusual but not unprecedented," he said. "In the past 10 years we've had at least two other snowy owls (who have lived) over the summer in Maine.

"Almost all of these cases are younger birds and this is their first summer. They were born last summer, so they probably wouldn't have been old enough to breed, even if they had made it back to the Arctic. And then they see Maine as a place with a ton of food and not a lot of competition."

Hitchcox said he is pleased by the excitement the owl has brought to the community, but cautioned people to observe proper bird-watching etiquette and maintain a safe distance. A good rule of thumb, he said, is to watch what the bird is focused on and make sure it isn't you or your camera.

"I would hope that anyone who goes to see it puts the bird's well-being before their desire to see it, or their attempt to get a photo. ... If the bird is looking at you, then you're too close," Hitchcox said.

Snowy owls are not completely nocturnal, but they do much of their hunting at night. That means for most of the day, they remain stationary, a fact that likely has frustrated photographers who might be waiting to catch an action shot.

Erynn Call, state raptor specialist for Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said bird-watchers should be mindful that even if they think they are not interfering with the owl, there is a possibility they are are indirectly impacting its environment.

"I think the biggest misconception is that you may not believe that the owl is disturbed by your presence, but one thing you could be doing is disturbing its prey," she said. "So it may be less likely to capture prey with a lot of people around and that can lead to diminished populations and chances of survival.

"Keeping a wide buffer from the owl is really important."

Carrie Lakowicz was visiting family in Maine on Wednesday and heard about the snowy owl. An avid bird-watcher, she immediately rushed over with her camera equipment. For Lakowicz, this was an opportunity she could not miss.

"(Snowy owls) are such majestic creatures, it's crazy to have it hanging out right in front of you," she said. "They're one of those birds you hope to see just once in your life, and it's sitting right there at the front of the beach."