Here in New England, like most of the United States, our “winter that wasn’t” has been followed by an early spring. Record warm temperatures, with the thermometer hitting 80 degrees in mid March, has everyone thinking about gardening, baseball, golf, etc. The sound of motorcycles can be heard on area roadways, convertible tops are down, snowdrops, crocus, and daffodils are all in bloom at the same time, something I’ve never seen happen before. Migrating birds are showing up at nesting grounds ahead of their normal schedule, peepers can be heard in the woods in March instead of April. Because of recent events in my life, my shooting schedule has become restrictive.
A Snowy Owl sits on a sand dune silhouetted against the early morning sky.
I now only get one week in four to get out and shoot whenever I want. My free week happened to be the 3rd week in March. As I watched the extended forecast for the week, it was hard to believe it was going to be as warm as they predicted. By midweek the high temperature was supposed to hit 80. My mind started to run the list of all the things I could possibly shoot during the week. Flowers were a big possibility, everything was blooming ahead of schedule. I was tempted to go looking for migrating birds as this time of year brings all sorts of birds through here on their way to their summer breeding grounds. With all the options that were rolling around in my mind one kept haunting me….Snowy Owls. I know from talking to other photographers that they have been disappearing, one by one, from places along the New England coast that they have haunted all winter.
Keeping watch on the beach for a threat or potential food.
I wasn’t able to spend any time looking for them during the winter, except for one brief excursion to Hampton Beach, NH. So what would my chances be if I went looking, now that the weather was supposed to be sunny and 80 degrees? I sent off an email to an online friend who keeps tabs on them in one area all winter. If anyone would know he would. He responded that he had been laid up but had gotten word and confirmed that there were still 3 owls there as of March 18. We planned our trip for March 21.
A Snowy Owl scans the marsh for potential food.
I set the alarm for 5AM. When I got out of bed and looked out the window it was foggy. We dressed, loaded the gear and mountain bikes into the truck, and got on the road. We were in varying densities of fog all the way to the beach. As we neared the beach the fog began to lift — just the opposite of what normally happens. As we crossed the bridge to the beach we found ourselves in bright sun. I packed my camera gear and Cyndy and I mounted our bikes for the long ride along the beach. Searching for a single bird along 4+ miles of dunes and beach can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We had ridden about 3 miles when I heard Cyndy say, “Is that him”? I looked in the direction to which she was pointing — the top of a dune between the beach and the road. Looking into the sun I could pick out the unmistakable silhouette of an owl. I knew I had to get on the other side of him for any kind of a picture.
Watching over the marsh
We started riding slowly down the road. We had to pass fairly close to the owl. Last thing I wanted to do was spook him. As we got close I heard the growl of a large truck coming up behind us. I looked back to see a huge dump truck approaching. It would go right by the owl. All I could do was watch. As the truck passed, the bird gave it an unconcerned look and continued his surveillance of the dunes and beach. I figured if the truck didn’t spook him neither would we — I was right. We stopped when I got to a spot where the sun was lighting the front of the owl. I took the pictures I wanted and then decided to ride to the next crossover and walk the beach back to the owl. I had a feeling he was sitting on the dune, just above the beach. After riding about ½ mile we found a crossover, locked up the bikes, and hiked the beach back.
We found him on the dune just above the beach. I moved as close as I could without spooking him and sat down and started taking pictures. The day had warmed to the point where I was comfortable in shorts and a t-shirt, not exactly Snowy Owl weather. I remembered John Vose’s blog about shooting a Snowy back in the winter in bitter cold with 30+ mph winds and a sub zero wind-chill. Here I was starting to tan. I watched the bird through the telephoto for a while. He was constantly scanning the beach and the marsh. Suddenly his posture changed. He stood taller, tail off the ground.
Suddenly, the massive wings spread and with one downward thrust he was off the dune, moving west toward the marsh. I couldn’t see where he went. We backtracked to the bikes and started riding back along the marsh. We didn’t get far before we discovered Cyndy had a flat. From here we would have to walk back to the truck. As we walked along we spotted him way out in the marsh. He was too far away to photograph but I had gotten what I had come for. The calendar said March 21. Many of the Snowys have already left. How long will this one stay, only the owl knows. One day, a trigger buried deep in the DNA of the bird will release and he will just disappear, guided back to the Arctic by some invisible map only he can see. Will we see him again? Who knows? It may be next winter or 5 years from now. In a future fall season another trigger will trip, be it a food shortage, over population, or some other phenomenon and suddenly they will reappear in our dunes and marshes, gracing us with their presence for another winter season.
A Snowy Owl takes flight off the top of a dune.
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