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Snowy Owl Arrival Causes Media Circus
Last weekend a group of my fellow photographers and I were standing in the dunes at Salisbury Beach looking for Short Eared Owls, when we noticed a large commotion along the access road. There is only one thing that could have snarled traffic and had people frantically running from their cars like that. No, Elvis had not appeared, nor had the band One Direction’s bus broken down.
It was a Snowy Owl (Bubo Scandiacus) who had just landed in a tree alongside the road.
Why are We Fascinated With Snowy Owls?
So, what is it about a Snowy Owl that causes people and even wildlife photographers to act out of the norm? I’m referring to trespassing on private and federal lands, feeding mice to the owls to get them to fly, or just chasing them from perch to perch.
Well for starters, Snowy Owls are a rarity in our neck of the woods. Many New Englanders only reference to a Snowy Owl is through Harry Potter.
Typically this species will irrupt south every four to five years, yet today we find ourselves in the middle of the largest unanticipated irruption of Snowy Owls in some say over 50 years.
Snowy Owls are big, white, mystical birds with incredibly piercing yellow eyes.
Unlike most owl species, they are active during daylight hours (diurnal). This gives many more people an opportunity to see and or photograph them. And you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity.
I truly believe that everyone who can, should make an effort to see one of these beautiful birds while they are here. However, I would like to offer some suggestions on how to make the most of your experience:
- Do some research before you go to enhance the experience that much more.
- If at all possible go mid-week. There must have been 50 cars following the Snowy down the road at Salisbury last Sunday.
- When you do find a Snowy, observe him from a respectable distance. You are more apt to witness natural behavior such as hunting and feeding when they aren’t feeling pressured.
If you have a camera, don’t just stare through the viewfinder but take the time to just watch them. Take memories with your eyes. I watched several people literally run up to where a Snowy was perched in a tree with their point and shoot cameras or smart phones, snap several pictures then turn around and leave without ever spending a minute or two just observing the owl. Instead of a great memory, all they will have is a photo.
A couple of links for further research…
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Snowy owls cool facts
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Snowy owls more info and what they sound like.
Respect the Bird and Your Fellow Watchers
Be respectful of other observers. It should go without saying, but again seeing this mystical bird can bring out bad behavior. I have watched on several occasions groups of people observing a Snowy from a respectable distance who had their experience cut short by an individual who insisted on getting closer and flushed the owl.
All the Snowy Owls I have spent time photographing appear to be in great shape. They all have either been actively feeding, or have blood on their feathers and talons suggesting successful hunting. Once they have established a hunting area they will probably stay until late March or until the call of Mother Nature beckons them back to the arctic.
The Take Away
In closing, I hope you get the chance to see this magnificent bird. All I ask is that you are respectful to the bird, its environment, and your fellow observers. I hope to see you in the field!!!
~ John Vose
In my last blog I mentioned 2 nesting platforms: The Johannis North Nest which was badly tilting and in need of repair, and the New Jacobs Point Nest that was about to be built. After writing my last blog I got to work on both project simultaneously. The first step was a trip to a local lumber yard where we purchased all the necessary materials:
- (2) 8 ft. 6×6 posts
- (2) 12 ft. 2×8 boards
- (1) 8 ft. 2×6 board
- (4) 8 ft. 2×4 boards
- (1) roll of wire fence
- (2) 10 x 1/2 inch bolts
- (10) 4 x 3/8 inch lag bolts
- (1) Large box 3-inch decking screws
- (4) 3 ft. metal straps
- (1) Box wire staples.
- (1) Drill bit 12 x ½ inch
- (8) 50 lb. bags of quick-crete cement
Cost – $175.00
Repairing the Johannis North Nest
Though I worked on both projects at the same time I’ll cover them individually here. The highest priority was the Johannis North nest. This is an established nest and when the birds return they will head for the platform. I didn’t want them to find an empty pole and possibly move. This pair produced the largest brood in RI last summer (4) and we wanted to be able to keep track of them. I set about building the new nesting platform. Once I had completed it we set a date and my wife, Cyndy, Dick Kaiser and I headed out to the platform on a cold and windy Saturday afternoon.
Traversing through a salt marsh
I don’t know how many of you have actually been out in a salt marsh but it is not a friendly environment, especially for shoes. Wellingtons are the footwear of choice. Negotiating about ¼ mile of marsh to get to the nest is also daunting. It requires picking your way past a series of trenches, inlets, pot holes, mud holes, and assorted other obstacles, all while carrying a couple of hundred pounds of gear. The object is to get where you’re going with dry feet and no lost gear. If you looked at our track to get out there it would resemble someone drunk without any sense of direction. In this case the shortest route is not a straight line.
Once we reached the pole, we set about mounting the platform on the tilting pole so the platform was level. Whoever developed battery powered tools must have had a project like this in mind. My battery operated power drill-screwdriver and battery powered skill saw made this job a lot easier than it otherwise would have been. It took us about 90 minutes to get the platform on top of the pole and secure. While we were in the middle of the project I heard Cyndy say, “Is that a Great Blue Heron?” Dick Kaiser looked and said, “No, I think it’s a Bald Eagle”! I was on top of the ladder mounting the platform but stopped to take a look too. Sure enough it banked and revealed the white tail and head. We watched her soar over the river and across Merriman’s Pond, heading for the golf course. I finished securing the new platform to the pole. We did some bracing on the pole and when we left, the new nesting platform was level and the pole solid. With the platform secure all we can do now is wait for the birds to return.
Building the New Jacob’s Point Platform
While I worked on the Johannis Platform I also built the entire setup for the new Jacob’s Point nesting platform including footing, support pole, and nesting platform. I built it all in my backyard. This had to be done because working in a marsh is very restrictive, no power being the biggest obstacle. Once I had it all built I disassembled it into 3 pieces, footing, support pole and platform. I also used a design by Andy Souther. It uses a hinging point to raise the nesting platform on the footing — a much easier process than trying to put the whole thing in at once.
The first step was to install the footing. We got permission from the state to drive my truck out on the bike path. This way we were able to get the materials relatively close. Neither Dick Kaiser, Mike Gerhardt, nor myself wanted to lug 400 lbs. of cement, tools, and a 60 lb. footing any further than we had to. We used a garden cart to pull the cement out to the site, and carried the rest. We found the spot we had gotten the permit for and started digging.
It went relatively easy, hitting mud, then clay and finally sand. The sand was as far as we could go. Water was getting in the hole and we couldn’t get the sand out, it would just wash out of the post hole digger as soon as we started to lift it out. We also couldn’t get all the water out. We made the decision to pour the cement in the hole and let the water from the marsh mix with it. It worked perfectly and in about 45 minutes it was setting and the support pole was locked in and plumb.
Because of high wind warnings we had to wait to put the platform up. We decided on Monday, March 12. As it turned out we couldn’t have picked a better day. With a record temperature of 72 degrees it was beautiful out in the marsh. We had more than enough help. Wenley Ferguson, director-habitat restoration, Save The Bay, Marilyn Mathison, head of The Warren Land Trust, Drew Winner, Mike Gerhardt, Doug Matern, Dick Kaiser, Cyndy Lombardi, Ted Hayes from the East Bay Newspapers, all showed up to support the project.
We mounted the support pole with a single bolt, this would be the pivot point. We attached the nesting platform to the support pole. Ropes were attached to opposite sides of the support pole. With some of the people on the ropes the rest of the crew raised the platform up until the ropes took over and pulled it up vertical. With the placing of the second bolt the project was complete except for some decking screws for added strength. As we walked out of the marsh, I stopped to look back at the platform lit by the late afternoon sun. It looked like it belonged.
Now all that’s left is to see if a new pair of birds will accept the platform. It now becomes a waiting game.
I’ve always felt that being a photographer carries with it an obligation for stewardship. This is especially true for photographers who gravitate to wildlife and landscape photography. The general nature of what we do begs for stewardship in one form or another. Almost everything we photograph is under some kind of environmental pressure. If you photograph beaches, shoreline, or mountains and foliage then, most likely, they are under pressure from development.
Rivers and bays are under pressure from pollution of many kinds-from waste water to storm water runoff, to discharge from the many boats that ply these waterways. Wildlife is under pressure on many fronts. Recently, here in Narragansett Bay, we were faced with the prospect of a LNG terminal in the upper NE corner of the bay, in Fall River.
Almost everyone, including governors, senators, and local officials from 2 states, The Coast Guard, Save The Bay, Audubon, local fishing and boating industry, plus many more agencies came out against this proposed terminal. It would not benefit anyone except the business that proposed it. Despite all the opposition it would not go away and it took about 10 years for them to abandon the project.
So what could we lowly photographers do to help out any of these causes that we feel strongly about? How can we help them fight large corporations and developers who are constantly trying to infringe on fragile ecosystems or wildlife habitats? You can do what I’ve been doing for the last 7 or 8 years…lend them your photography.
You can write a 10 page paper on why something shouldn’t happen or what the ramifications are and chances are not many people will read it. However, add a striking picture of the area in jeopardy, or a mother duck with ducklings, or an osprey fishing, and it becomes a story with a victim, one they can see, something they can relate to-visually. It becomes a story with a heart. Suddenly people can see what they will lose. You are showing them that if we don’t fight this event then we will lose whatever is depicted in the photograph- forever.
I can guarantee you won’t get rich doing this, at least not monetarily. All grassroots agencies are normally operating on a shoestring budget. There is, however, an immense amount of satisfaction in seeing one of your photographs leading the charge against raiders on our environment. So how do you get involved? I did it by first showing my work at the Audubon EEC here in Bristol RI.
I did an art show with a lot of bird photos at the EEC and that led to them asking if they could use some of the shots on brochures and publications. In the fall of 2010 as a member of our town‘s Conservation Commission, I attended a dedication of a restored salt marsh. There were several agencies present including Save The Bay.
I politely let the Save The Bay Reps. know that I would let them use any of my pictures I had shot around the marsh for promotional purposes if they wanted. I directed them to my website and they selected several egret pictures which became the backdrop for 4 interpretive signs that are now being installed at the 4 restoration sites. The only thing I ask of them is if they use my picture they credit me.
Even though I have my photography for sale and do a modest business on selling my work I will continue to support agencies that lead the way when it comes to protecting our environment and the wildlife that inhabits it. In doing so, in a sense, I am protecting my photography business also. After all, if we lose the very essence of what we photograph then we lose ourselves also.
Hey, did you know that Narragansett Beer is back? Once at the top of the lager ladder, the Gansett executed a fatal belly flop in 1981, only to rise again from the beer sludge in 2005 like some fermented reincarnation of the mythical Phoenix.
What the heck does this have to do with photography, you might ask? Diddly-squat, but hey, you never know when an annoying factoid like this might spur you to sample a local brewski while on a photographic excursion to Rhode Island. I’m just saying.
But I blatantly diverge. The truth is that I have never tasted Narragansett beer, although I have savored the Narragansett coast on many occasions. It’s an area I visit several times a year, always off-season when the abundant tourists have driven off with the howling kiddies and the temperature is too frigid for bathing suit devotees.
My favorite part of the coast lies between Narragansett and Point Judith, along Ocean Road. This five-mile section affords easy shore access at several points along the way. Although the best locations are not widely publicized, small parking areas do exist on dead-end streets near the shore. So here you have it: a rugged coast with convenient access.
By the way, I suspect that risk is responsible for the lack of publicity. This coast is untamed and very hazardous. Large glacial rocks adorn the shoreline, angled down toward the strong surf and deadly undertow. To make matters worse, the rocks below the tide line are exceptionally slippery even at low tide, inviting a precipitous slide down to the ocean on your posterior. Many have died here, so watch your step and pay homage to Mother Nature. She always wins.
So, here are a few of my favorite places along the coast of Narragansett. Since all these locations face east, they photograph best at dawn and sunrise. But, if you point your camera diagonally along the coast toward the southwest, you may be able capture stunning sunsets as well.
HAZARD ROCKS: Driving south from Narragansett along Ocean Road, you’ll soon come across Hazard Avenue on your left side. This leads to a small parking area at the end of the street and a primitive path to the coast. There are photogenic channels, tide pools, and rock formations here. But be aware that at high tide, this is also one of the more hazardous spots.
NEWTON ROCKS: From Hazard Avenue, continue south on Ocean Road to nearby Newton Avenue. Once again, a primitive dirt path will take you to the rocks past the small parking area at the end of the street. Here you’ll be rewarded with a large tide pool and rocky compositions of the coast.
BLACK POINT: One mile south of Newton Avenue, you’ll see another parking area on your left marked “Black Point Fishing Area”. A dirt path takes you to a groomed trail that follows the coast. Turn right at the first fork in the path and keep walking past the cape to reach the better spots. The trail leads to Scarborough State Beach but it’s unlikely you’ll get that far. You could spend a week along this stretch alone, darting on and of the trail to shoot coastal scenes.
POINT JUDITH LIGHT: If you go to the coast, you might as well include a good lighthouse. And Point Judith is a photogenic one both at sunrise and sunset. From Black Point, drive three miles south to the end of Ocean Road, and look for a dirt road marked “Camp Cronin Fishing Area”. It will be on your right, just before the lighthouse (a gated place). Park at the end of the dirt road somewhere near the breakwater, and walk the shore for the best compositions.
Enjoy the coast and stay safe.
Stunning imagery of Block Island by Mike Blanchette
If you live in New England, you’ve probably heard of Block Island. You may know it as a party island that’s overrun with sun worshippers in the summer. The mere mention of the place may conjure up images of skimpy bathing suits, swarms of bicycles and mopeds hogging narrow roads, abundant booze and lots of loud music.
Block Island lies 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. It was formed by glaciers 10,000 years ago, and first settled by the Narragansett Indians. Captain Kidd stopped here in 1699 but these days, the place throngs with summer tourists who ferry over from Newport and Point Judith to enjoy its 17 miles of free public beaches.
I’ve been here several times, always off-season and with photography on the brain. When the tourists vacate after Labor Day, long ferry reservations are no longer necessary, the inns put out their vacancy signs, and the winding roads are nearly empty. It’s my time to visit.
What’s on Block Island? Well for starters, 44% of the island is protected by the Block Island Conservancy, ensuring that its wilderness remains unspoiled. Then, there are photogenic lighthouses, dramatic bluffs, numerous ponds, a wildlife sanctuary, charming Victorian homes, and miles of narrow roads bordered by natural fieldstone walls.
North Lighthouse is one of my favorite places, located at Sandy Point on the northern tip of the island. I’ve photographed this lighthouse at all times of day, in both color and infrared. On my last trip, I made a point of staying there alone with the curious deer hours after sunset to photograph the little lighthouse under the stars.
Another favorite of mine is the Mohegan Bluffs, which hover some 200 feet above the boulder-strewn shoreline below. It’s become one of my beloved sunrise locations, with Southeast Lighthouse standing guard above the bluffs that were aptly named after a memorable battle involving a marauding band of Mohegans.
If you decide to go, avoid the crowded summer months most popular among beach-goers, and stick with the shoulder months in late spring and autumn. Limited ferries are available from Newport during the off-season, but your best bet is Point Judith, which runs ferries throughout the day twelve months out of the year.