On the hunt for the great white owl.
25 photographers poised at the helms of their 2-foot-long lenses, watching and waiting.
We'd just slogged through a half mile of deep sand through the dunes at the westerly end of Jones Beach. We easily followed the footprints and tripod trails of those that came before us: the tireless wildlife photographers who'd arrived in the morning and waited patiently for the owl to do... anything.
And there, perched on a tiny hill of sand and scrub, 50 feet from the gaggle of cameras, sat the great white owl. Sleeping, blinking, and every so often turning his (or her) head to glance lazily at the ever-forward-creeping band of tripods.
Snowy owls are one of the largest owl species in North America, standing upright about 2 feet tall. They spend their summers in the arctic circle, and head south for a relatively warmer winter spent in Canada and the Northern parts of the Midwest. A few individuals venture down to the Northeast each year and New York is at the southern end of their normal winter range. This year though, snowy owls are crowding not just New York, but have been spotted as far south as Florida and one sun-seeking owl even ventured all the way to Bermuda. Snowy owls are being spotted so often this year that the birding community is calling it an invasion.
My fellow twitchers for the day were Mom and Dad. None of us had ever seen a snowy owl before, and none of us had ever gone out of our way to try and spot a particular bird in New York before (I use the term twitcher very loosely). It was a balmy winter's day in New York, with clear-skies and temperatures in the 50's: perfect for a (visual) hunt for the great white owl.
"You fooled us pretty well with those! I was excited to see all of those species together at once!"
The trio looked at me in confusion and annoyance.
"They're not real", one grumbled.
"Yes, I know... ummm, what are you going for?"
Dad asked; "We're out here looking for snowy owls- have you seen any?"
"Yeah, sure- over by that bridge there"
We retreated from the pier, wondering if they'd just said that to get rid of us (which they had). As we walked back along the top of the dunes a flock of Brants came flying in right over the hunters. Five loud bangs and three of the geese fell into the water. Mom and I stood, waiting, to see if the hunters would go retrieve them- which they didn't. We can't be sure that the geese didn't all float back to the boat, but from our viewpoint on the shore, it seemed like they were just left in the water. What a waste.
[Disclaimer: I have nothing against hunting, especially for species that are well-managed. But I do think that animals that are killed should be used for something. Just killing a brant for the sake of it seems like an incredible waste to me.]
In the parking lot, a woman with a telephoto lens was just getting into her car, and Dad asked if she'd seen any owls.
"Not here, but if you go to Jones Beach you're virtually guaranteed to see one." She proceeded to give us very detailed directions to where she'd seen an owl the previous day. I love friendly birders.
The gathering of vehicles at the western end of the vast, empty parking lot gave away the best spot to venture from. And it wasn't too long before we found the owl- and its admirers. With the sunset turning the sky behind them orange, the group looked like a scene from some military movie.
In the arctic summer, snowy owls hunt throughout the constant daylight, which may explain why they are one of the most diurnal (active during the day) owls. Snowy owls hunt voraciously when prey is available, with the natural boom and bust of the arctic lemming cycles dictating how well breeding pairs will do in a year. In a good lemming year, pairs of owls have been known to raise as many as 12 chicks, and a single individual can to eat up to 1,600 lemmings in a year. The exact reasons for what causes large influxes of snowy owls as far south as New York some years has not been pinpointed yet- but it is probably tied to the lemming cycles. The main theories are that either low lemming years drive adults south in search of more food in the scarce winter months, or that high lemming years result in a large increase in the population of snowy owls and that many of the southward adventurers are juveniles: snowy owls on spring break.
"Oh wow- did you just get here then?" I asked.
"No, I've been here for four hours."
"And you haven't taken a single picture?"
"No, I'm waiting for the owl to do something."
"You've been here for four hours, with a huge telephoto lens, an owl sitting 50 feet away, and a digital camera... and you haven't taken a single picture? Seriously?"
I gave up and asked another guy nearby; he also told me he'd been around for a few hours and hadn't taken any shots. He said it was because the owl had perched amongst some scrub and he didn't like the way it looked.
Pretty sure that these guys thought I was somehow going to steal their shots, I gave up on trying to chat with them and happily rejoined Mom and Dad to watch the owl some more and enjoy the views as the sun set. A man walked by on his way back to the parking lot with a huge tripod and massive lens slung over his shoulder and wished us luck with our watching. "Thanks", I said, and meekly asked if he'd gotten any good pictures.
"Yeah, I got some great ones. Better ones last week. He's a beautiful bird though isn't he? Do you know about these owls? I can tell you a little about them."
As we talked, the two photographers who apparently don't take pictures took their tripods and walked around behind the owl, setting up about 50 feet away on the other side of the bird. The owl immediately began to fidget: turning his head back and forth (owls can turn their heads almost completely around), bobbing his head (which is something raptors often do to judge distances), and then lazily stretching out one wing. The photographers crept ever closer, and eventually the owl had enough (it's disappointing that people can't just respect the bird and let it do its thing, but these guys wanted their magic shot).
The owl bobbed his head, beat his silent wings, soared in an arc out across the dunes and (literally) flew off into the sunset.
For the past week I've heard both parents recount our adventure to plenty of jealous non-birders, who were excited and intrigued by the idea of spotting an owl in New York City's backyard. Mom told her students at the inner-city high school she teaches at, and all they wanted to talk about for the rest of the class was owls. It's amazing how just having a rare visitor come to the city can get people excited about nature. I'll look forward to the next family trek out to spot a bird!