Sunday, December 07, 2008

Searching for a Snowy

No I didn't find the owl, but the searching is half the fun, see? Today was my volunteer day at Sandy Hook Bird Observatory and one benefit of sitting there by myself most days is that I get to take calls about good birds people are seeing in the area.

A park ranger showed up today to report a Snowy Owl! Now... I've seen Snowy Owls a couple times, and it was pretty cold and the wind was at gale-level on the bay almost, but I couldn't resist having a look for it. The directions I got were responsibly vague and there's a lot of dune edge to search through at Gunnison Beach.

I decided to walk north following what I assumed were the ranger's tire tracks in the sand. She hadn't found the owl on foot in the ridiculous cold today, but in her warm four-wheel drive truck. Pfft. Of course, this also meant walking into the biting wind that was blowing sand in my eyes and mouth.

Good birders have something like a search image in their minds when recognizing birds, right? With snowy owls it's pretty simple - big and whitish. The problem comes in when you're all excited and feverish with the hunt and your lips and fingers are numb with the cold and your eyes are full of sand from the wind... well, you start to see things.

Every bit of white in the dunes calls your attention and you imagine everything to be that Snowy Owl you're searching for. Of course you also want to be responsible and not get too close, but that only adds to the tricks that your eyes and mind play on you.

This particular white blob looked very promising and had me imagining my victorious phone call to a friend; I could even hear myself mumbling through numb lips, "I found it! I found it!"

Crawling closer on hands and knees, peeking over the top of the dune from a different angle revealed the truth... the rare and elusive white plastic jug owl. That as opposed to the usual white plastic bag owl that is most frequently mistaken for a snowy.

I did, however, find a little flock of Snow Buntings. I wonder what they find to eat in the sand? Someone reported a flock of 200-300 the day before yesterday. I know you're thinking they look like plain old sparrows, but trust me! I didn't imagine them, I don't think.

The return walk to my car had the wind at my back, finally, and this nice view of Sandy Hook Light. The shoreline has changed enough over the years that the lighthouse is at least a mile inland now.

Back on the bayside, the setting sun was putting on a nice show for my drive home, as was this line of gulls kiting in the wind over the breaking waves. Not sure what that was about. I hardly made it off Sandy Hook before I was sidetracked back onto the beach and into the cold again. I'll save those pics for another day when I've thawed out some.


Lynne said...

I'm not sure why, but it surprises me to think you get snow buntings there. I guess I don't think of them as hanging out at the beach. I've seen several of those white plastic bag snowies but only one of the real ones. That wind looks wicked.

Larry said...

I remember seeing a white plastic helium balloon in a ree across the river thinking it was a Snowy Owl.I just looked at your photo of gulls and thought the one on the right rear was one of those polar bear swimmers walking with a surfboard!

MevetS said...

It is even worse when the big plastic thing is shaped like an owl. I was on the Palos Verdes Peninsula south of LA. I had found my way there because the ABA Birder's Guide to Southern California told me that a GHO frequented a lighthouse on the peninsula. Now it so happens that when I got to the lighthouse there was a big fence and a warning sign. Seems they had an earthquake and it wasn't safe to wander about on the cliffs.

I was working in the LA area at the time. (I was living in NJ, making for a rather long commute, but that's another story for a different blog.) Anyway, I got to the lighthouse as the sun was setting. And in the dim light I saw it. A great horned owl. Not only my first GHO but my first owl of any kind.

But, because of the fence I was some distance away. And the light was poor. And the owl just stood there on the roof. But I was sure I saw the owl move. Positive. And the book said that owl would be there. And it was.

And it was the next day as well. And Saturday morning. In good light. In the exact same spot. And no, I didn't see it move. My life owl had none. Life that is.

But I did get to see the resident peacocks!

SteveM (number one on today's counter).

LauraHinNJ said...

Lynne: I'm still shivering!

(And daydreaming about great grays in minnesota someday.)

Larry: Um... I know my pictures are pretty bad, but jeez... you've got a vivid imagination!


Steve: Hey! Thanks for coming by!

Thanks for the story. I have a similar one about a GHO that still, to this day, sits on top of an office building I pass on my way to work. Still fools me sometimes.


(The counter only made it to seven today and I think I counted Patty and I twice!)

Larry said...

The pictures fine-it's my close-up vision that's going-Of course it was only a split-second that I had that hallucination.

Jayne said...

Oh Laura, I was so excited for you when I saw the white blob in the distance! Pfft. So wish it had been the owl! Love seeing the snow buntings though, and the magnificent sunset. Hope you are warmed up by now.

NCmountainwoman said...

I got colder and colder the more I read. I'm sure that every disappointing bag dropped the temperature and increased the wind. Nice photographs.

Floridacracker said...

hah! It's good to be the ranger!

Thanks for sharing that beautiful wintry beach.

KatDoc said...

Susan and I chased a Snowy Owl last Sunday (Nov. 30.) We missed ours, too, though we did see lots and lots of white plastic bags; even one that was shaped JUST like an owl. We even got a phone call from Delia while we were birding, but we lost contact with her. Our best birds of the day were a flock of Horned Larks, 1 Cooper's and 8 Red-tailed Hawks.

Of course the freakin' owl was found THIS Sunday, Dec. 7, right where we looked last week, darn it!


MevetS said...

My pleasure.

And I enjoyed meeting you.

(And thanks for stopping by my blog. And if you went far enough back in the archives, you saw that I did eventually get the GHO If not, then check out the Sparkle theme.)

Susan Gets Native said...

I was amazed during last week's owl chase, just how many PLASTIC FREAKIN' BAGS there are out roaming the wild.

Mary said...

I was getting so psyched! Yes, the white bag has disappointed me, too :o)

But, outside of the numbing cold, you did see some marvelous skies. Just wonderful.


Rabbits' Guy said...

We see a Snowy Owl here now and then also. Usually they are sitting on some little post or small building right along the road and we all totally miss them because we expect them to be way out on the beach or in the middle of a field!

RuthieJ said...

I hope you get to see your Snowy Owl yet this winter Laura. I've mistaken white plastic litter for large birds before too--drives me crazy!

LauraHinNJ said...

Larry: I imagine stuff in my pics all the time, too.


Jayne: It was almost 65 degrees here today. Crazy weather.

NCMountainWoman: Funny, but it did kind of work that way.

FC: Yeah... you rangers get all the perks.

KatDoc: I think this'll be a good year for owls... keep looking.

Steve: I've had a look since... thanks for pointing me to that pic. Nice!

You ought to come back to SHBO on a more hospitable day, really.

Susan: Frustrating, I know!

Mary: Yeah... the sunsets are gorgeous in winter, I think.

Rabbit'sGuy: Same here! Although they're not so common as that.

Ruthie: I'm hoping to find one this weekend... there's a couple around the neighborhood!

Clearly Claire said...

HAHAHAHA! A friend of mine from Washington State told me she was birding once on the East Coast, looking for Snowy Owl. It was wet, cold and foggy, and off in the field was a white blob. A car of birders rolled up, jumped out. They viewed the blob, declared to one and all they had their lifer Snowys, and they drove off. My friend walked out into the field to discover a white styrofoam ice chest. Your story reminded me of the other white owl!