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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Having never seen a Snowy Owl in the wild before, I was very excited to hear of the irruption taking place this year. With the report of at least two Snowy Owls being seen in Hampton, New Hampshire, I packed my equipment and headed for the coast.
I arrived at Hampton Harbor, the area that the Snowy was last reported, at about 6:30 in the morning. I was hoping to find and photograph him with the sun rising in the background. After 30-45 minutes of searching, I finally located him next to a rock pile hunkered down out of the wind.
Locating him turned out to be the easy part. On this particular day, the wind was blowing 30-35 mph resulting in a wind chill well below zero. In addition to trying to stay warm, the wind made it impossible to shoot handheld, and nearly impossible with a tripod. Battery life was cut in half. In order to have any chance of capturing sharp images, I laid on the ground and rested my lens on a bean bag.
The wind and biting cold temperatures created several issues for me that day. First was keeping warm, especially my hands. Trying to adjust camera settings wearing mittens or gloves is difficult at best. Disposable instant hand warmers serve dual purposes for me. I keep them in my coat pocket to warm my hands when not actively shooting, and to keep my spare camera batteries warm.
The wind direction changed frequently. This made it extremely difficult to position myself to take flight shots. Owls, like most birds, take off into the wind. It seemed like whenever I was in the proper position to shoot flight shots based on the owl’s position and wind direction, the wind would shift, necessitating a move to a different spot, and leaving me hoping the new location would not be shooting directly into the sun.
To me, photographing a Snowy Owl is a dream come true. I was fortunate enough to photograph another Snowy Owl in Addison, Vermont, earlier this winter when there was no snow on the ground, and the temperature was in the low 40’s. Hardly arctic, tundra-like conditions. The photographs in this article of the Hampton, New Hampshire, Snowy were taken in brutally cold temps with below zero wind chills and blowing snow. Despite the logistical issues those types of conditions can create, it gave me the sense I was photographing and experiencing the owl in his element. A much more satisfying experience.
I stopped by Parker Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Newburyport Mass on Saturday, hoping to photograph Endangered Least Tern juveniles. While searching along Sandy Point, I was surprised at the number of nests I saw still containing eggs. It is pretty late in the season, although a biologist I spoke with said the same scenario occurred last year.
Each summer, the refuge closes a large stretch of beach, and ropes off known nesting areas to help protect this endangered species. Unfortunately, the birds don’t know that, and lay their eggs in the sand most anywhere. This leads to an increased risk of eggs or hatched chicks being killed by unsuspecting beach goers.
|Least Tern Nest outside the ropes|
|Least Tern Nest with Chick and Egg|
Above is a photo of a Least Tern nest with a newly hatched chick, and an unhatched egg, located outside of the roped off nesting area. If you were walking along the beach, it would be very easy to step right on them without even noticing. If the parents are near by, you will know you are near a nest by their reaction. They will dive at you, or if on the ground, spread their wings and “look menacing”.
While there are certain disadvantages to “blending into your surroundings” ie getting stepped on, there are also distinct advantages. The chicks and eggs are very prone to predation from hawks, eagles, dogs, herons and egrets to name a few, so looking like your surroundings makes it more difficult for predators to locate you.
This is a photo of a Great Egret who has plundered a Plover nest killing one of the chicks.
|Great Egret with a Plover Chick|
Once a chick has hatched, the Least Tern parents spend a great deal of their time feeding their young.
|Least Tern Chick being fed by parent|
|Least Tern Chick being fed by Parent|
|Least Tern chick with a fish|
The parents also provide protection from both weather and predators.
|Mom protecting chick|
|Mom protecting chick|
The Parker Wildlife Refuge http://www.fws.gov/northeast/parkerriver/ is one of the best spots in New England to check out these endangered birds. Early August is prime time to view juveniles. If you do go, please obey the roped off areas, posted signs, and most of all WATCH YOUR STEP !!
Let’s face it. Our New England beaches are mostly sand and rock, unlike those South Pacific islands that are blessed with shapely coconut palm trees and dazzling turquoise water.
Most of the time, New England photographers have to rely on colorful skies and dramatic weather to make compelling beach images. Now, there’s no denying that many superb images have been created with only sand, sea, and sky in the frame. But after a few years of beach photography, creativity can begin to wane when working with only a few photo elements.
I love beach photography. It’s one of the reasons I spend time scouting the beaches on Cape Cod. Cape Cod is only a few hours from my home in New Hampshire, and happens to have some of the finest white-sand beaches in all of New England (in my opinion). But the thing I have learned in my years of scouting is that not all beaches are created equal. Every once in a while, you stumble upon a WOW beach that truly excels in photographic potential.
In my opinion, First Encounter Beach in Eastham, Massachusetts is possibly the most photogenic beach on Cape Cod. The reason is mud. Well, not mud exactly but more like wet patterns in the sand. At high tide, First Encounter Beach looks like every other Cape Cod beach, with no special claim to beauty. But at low tide, it’s a very different story. And if low tide happens to coincide with sunset, now you’ve got something special indeed.
The beauty of First Encounter Beach has to do with its sandbars, sand ripples, and tide pools that make for fabulous foregrounds, particularly at sunset and dusk when shadows highlight the patterns. Vertical and diagonal patterns lead the eye through the frame, whereas horizontal patterns step the viewer into the middleground and background. Try combining sky reflections in a tide pool with sand ripples — you may find yourself giddy with excitement.
The best way to draw attention to the sand patterns is by shooting low. And by low, I mean on your knees — bring knee pads if you have them. You’ll also need a tripod for long exposures at dusk, a wide angle lens (24mm works quite well here), and if you have one, a three-stop graduated neutral density (GND) filter to tame the bright sky.
First Encounter Beach is easy to find. From Route 6 in Eastham, turn onto Someset Road at the sign and follow the road to the beach parking lot. My favorite time of year to go to Cape Cod is: NOT SUMMER. In summertime, the Cape buzzes with an influx of tourists who crowd the beaches at all hours of the day. I prefer early spring and late fall because the weather is usually mild and there are few tourists. In March and April, you may own the beach.
Before you go, check the weather, sunset time, and tide charts. Good planning will get you the best photos. Partially cloudy or clear skies are great, but make sure low tide is no more than two hours on either side of sunset.