Asturias has two new very recognizable neighbors for experts in birds of prey or Harry Potter fans. It is a pair of snowy or Arctic owls, two white specimens with some black spots and large amber eyes, like the one that accompanied the young magician, who since last weekend have been in the Gozón area, a coastal area near Cape Peñas. These animals live in ecosystems very different from that of the Principality of Asturias, so that ornithologists and specialists wonder how they have been able to reach these latitudes. Meanwhile, dozens of curious people from all over Spain, who are asked to respect these birds, have come to these places with cameras and spyglasses in search of observing this unprecedented guest.
The first sighting of one of them occurred last Saturday and immediately the photos and information began to flow through social networks and telephones, to the point that since then a large number of interested parties have been around places such as the beaches of Verdicio or Llumeres , where both birds of prey have been seen. The biologist Arancha Marcotegi, from the birdwatching company Birdwatch Asturias, explains that the presence of three of these arctic specimens was confirmed, but one of them died “exhausted” in Cantabria. The rest have become accustomed to Asturian environments and maintain their twilight hunting routines, although not as nocturnal as their cousins the Spanish royal owls, in search of rodents or small unsuspecting animals. Marcotegi adds that their usual habitat is the tundra – a polar region of low vegetation -, whether in Greenland, northern Europe or North America, so he does not believe that they will last a long period in Spain, no matter how winter approaches. Nor should they ascend to colder, mountainous areas, where they would have many more competitors and could not breed on the ground, as they usually do, for potential predators.
The doubts of the specialists lie in how they have landed in Asturias. This biologist believes that, since they are not “great migrants”, they may have felt exhausted during a displacement and decided to stop “to rest on a boat” that brought them to this territory. The doctor in biology and head of species conservation at SEO / BirdLife Nicolás López explains that the southernmost latitudes that snowy owls can frequent never go beyond the north of the United Kingdom or Scandinavia. The expert points out that another option is that climate change has caused “extreme phenomena of more iciness in their areas or stronger storms” that suppose that the strong currents of the Atlantic wind have dragged the specimens, whose origin is difficult to determine not being ringed. The analyzes to which they are going to submit the owl that died will help to understand where it came from and, therefore, the most plausible options on its flight to the Iberian Peninsula. López recalls that the ship theory is more than sensible given that all kinds of birds, even griffon vultures, often stop on ships that cross the Strait of Gibraltar heading for the African heat.
Both specialists in ornithology agree that the presence of these arctic animals in Asturias will be brief. Both the “instinct” and the need to breed soon will mark their willingness to fly north again, a process that they believe will be through “stages” because they are not like other winged animals such as terns, better prepared for extensive migrations . The biologists’ goal is for these two birds to improve after an exhausting experience, to be able to feed and gain weight before embarking on a new adventure.
That will depend, they warn, on the respect they perceive from the dozens of fans who have come to Gozón in search of observing or photographing them. López, who, because of the size of the owls, believes that they are a female and a male, asks “to leave them alone” because even the experts do not believe it is convenient to sex or identify them. “It is good to promote ornithological tourism, but with good observation practices so as not to disturb them, they are recovering after thousands of kilometers,” asks the SEO / BirdLife representative. People, he details, prevent the owl from being able to hunt or eat comfortably, even more so if they “organize battles” to try to locate it during the daytime hours in which it is limited to resting. López warns that “he will not stand like a plastic owl” and that it will be difficult to photograph him as in the first time he was seen, perched on the roof of a private home.
The “overcrowding” around this specimen with its sharp beak and claws and dense plumage to combat the cold can be detrimental. However, within the exotic journey that has taken the pair of birds to Asturias, they have been “very lucky”, says the biologist, because if there were many birds of prey in this habitat “they would have been thrown out”. These two arctic owls are not in for hostility after thousands of miles of grueling travel.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.