Bird Watcher's General Store

More On Seeing Snowy Owls
12/20/13


Snowy Owl Search Continued,

Last week, Charlotte, wrote in about this being a good year to see Snowy Owls. She wanted my advice on the best way to see one. As usual, I made the question about me and responded by telling her that my son was also determined to see a snowy this year. I mentioned that he and I had already spent several weeks searching for the owl, only to come up empty. Our most recent attempt occurred last week when Doug (a photographer with a Jeep) drove us out to the end of Nauset Beach. We were hoping to see the same bird Doug had photographed the day before. We spent most of the afternoon searching the south end of the Nauset spit, looking at lots of Snow Buntings and tons of Common Eiders, but no owls. We were just about to throw in the towel, when Doug raised his binoculars…and this is where we left off.

When I see are a rare bird I tend to get loud, yelling like I have just won the Showcase Showdown on The Price Is Right, but Doug is not like me. In a relaxed, barely audible voice, I heard him calmly say, “There’s one.” I whipped my binoculars around and focused on a white dot way across the marsh. Doug was right. In the distance I could see a Snowy Owl…a very tiny Snowy Owl. Casey saw it too, but knew right away the bird was out of camera range. The distance between us and the bird put a bit of a damper on Casey’s first snowy sighting and it didn’t help when Doug said that he has never seen a snowy fly, unless it was spooked by people. Then, as if to make a liar out of Doug, the bird lifted off the ground and flew across the marsh…right towards us. We froze in our tracks and watched as the bird settled in a small cedar tree about two hundred feet away. Casey and Doug grabbed their fancy cameras and slowly worked their way closer. I stayed back and watched from a distance. I didn’t want to spook the bird in case it was stressed from its long migration. I also enjoyed watching the two photographers in action. As the owl turned its head away, they would slowly creep up. When the bird looked back at them, they became statues. They would resume their approach the minute the owl turned away. It was like watching school kids playing a game of “red light - green light.”

When they had crept close enough to take decent photos, they both turned and quietly headed back to the car, showing no emotion. I was expecting to see Casey do cartwheels, but unlike his old man, Casey is pretty low-key. (Hmm, maybe Doug is his real father.) When I asked if he was able to get a good photo, he turned the camera screen towards me. On the screen was a stunning close-up of a gorgeous Snowy Owl. The photo was so clear I could see every white feather, plus the bird’s bright yellow eyes, and even smell fresh mouse on its breath. As I handed the camera back to Casey, I silently mouthed the word “Wow!” and watched a giant grin run across his face. Suddenly, all of the dead-ends, all of the “you should have been here yesterdays” and the freezing walks on the beach were totally worth it.

For anyone who would like to see a Snowy Owl (and that should be everybody), this is the year to see one. Unprecedented numbers of these white birds are pouring into the States from their home in the Arctic. As many as fourteen of them have been reported. Why so many this year? It’s all about lemmings. Lemmings, those furry little mousey things that live in the Arctic, often have boom or bust breeding cycles. Some years there are very few, while in other years the tundra is alive with them. When the lemming population is down the owls can’t successfully breed. But in good lemming years the birds will really crank out the owlets. Apparently, this was an exceptional breeding year, and now the young owls have headed to the Cape (and elsewhere), looking for food and making the local mice and lots of other creatures very nervous.

Where should you look for Snowy Owls? Head for the beach. Snowys look for habitat that resembles their tundra homes. Around here that means quiet sand dunes and any of our increasingly rare dog-free beaches. This week Mass Audubon offered the following Snowy Owl sightings: Gray’s Beach in Yarmouth (3), Sandy Neck in Barnstable (2), South Beach in Chatham (2), First Encounter in Eastham, (2), and single birds from Seagull Beach in Yarmouth, Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, Skaket Beach in Orleans, Great Island in Wellfleet and Provincetown Harbor. Remember, these aren’t typical owls, the ones that hide all day and sneak out only when it’s dark. Snowy Owls sit right out in the open, day or night, visible to anyone who wants to see them. However, these are mostly young birds, a long way from home and probably stressed. Take your photos from a safe distance and keep the dogs away, especially if they’re small. (Many people don’t like small dogs, but Snowy Owls actually “love” them.)

If you are ever going to see a Snowy Owl, Charlotte, this is the year. I suggest you dress warm, very warm, and visit as many beaches as you can. Or better yet, try to mooch a ride off somebody who has an ORV with a beach sticker. I was so grateful to Doug for the ride he gave us that I thanked him a thousand times on the way home. And to show my gratitude, I told Doug that I would give him a free bag of birdseed the next time he came into the store. Wait! What? Free birdseed? What was I thinking? Oh, man, I sure hope he didn’t hear me.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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