Chasing A Bird – Snowy Owl

I do go birding but I am certainly not the “best” at it; neither am I the most “focused” birder around. No pun intended there but maybe it is a good way to describe my birding which is like a scope that is slightly blurry – not quite focused. I love birds and love walking in the woods and looking for birds but I do not have that fine-tuned desire that keeps me out there looking for birds every single day. And my life list is woefully lacking in numbers and varieties of birds…when I bother to find time to update the list. Don’t get me wrong, my yard birds are well-fed and admired every morning, noon and evening when they feed and I know them personally – or, at least, it seems like I know them personally since we seem to have named quite a few of them. The crows are all “Dewey” Crow after the character on the TV show, Justified. The name fits as Dewey seems to raise as much ruckus as a murder of crows and gets into just about as much trouble as a corn-thieving crow can get into….at least by reputation among farmers.  The reason the birds all have the same name at our house is, obviously, because we cannot tell them apart. So it is with the other birds too. The Carolina Wrens are all “Jenny” since we’re not sure exactly which wren is the “Jenny” Wren. And so on and so on.

birdersBut I digress – back to birding. I am really too easily distracted (can you imagine that?) by other things outside like trees and flowers and waterfalls and foxes and deer and turkeys to keep my attention on the birds.  Okay, turkeys are birds so that one counts as birding as long as it is a wild turkey in the woods.  I don’t suppose it would really be considered to be birding if you just go down to hang out at the Purdue factory and counted the domestic turkeys and chickens as they were hauled in by trucks….although domesticated farm birds are still birds.

So, while I do not actually count myself as a serious birder, I am registered with several local birding listservs and Facebook pages (Anne Arundel Birding, MD Birding, Delaware Birding, PA Birding, etc.) So I do get the rare bird alerts, and from time to time, something or, some bird, to be more precise, catches my attention and my imagination and I am off to the races – off to find a bird.  This season, the bird that has my attention is the Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca).  The irruption started relatively early with reports of a Snowy Owl on Assateague Island.  Soon after, there were several reports of not one but two owls near Cape Henlopen and Indian River Inlet over in Delaware.  And that is just way too close to home not to just jump in the car and head out looking. So, attention grabbed and focus adjusted, it was time to do some bird chasing.

inlet river bridgeAnd so it was, one Sunday morning, that I convinced my husband that we should head on out so we grabbed binoculars and cameras and were soon on our way.  We were a bit late getting started but, fortunately, Snowy Owls are diurnal and not strictly nocturnal, so you can actually see them without stumbling through the woods in the dark.  And, on top of that, the owls appear to like wide open spaces – the better to find those lemmings and mice and little critters that they love to eat – so, again, no breaking trail through high brush to contend with.  And, according to reports, the owls were just sitting quietly right there in the dunes by the beach – how convenient is that? Already I am liking this bird.

This wouldn’t be my first Snowy Owl. Years ago, maybe thirty or so, before I was a bird watcher, when I lived in Alaska, a beautiful Snowy Owl had flushed out from the bushes by the road and flew across the road right in front of my truck as I was traveling home from work one evening near Delta Junction, AK. I never forgot the sight of that beautiful bird and, now, way down here in Delaware, I have an opportunity to see another one.   We arrived at Indian River Inlet just before lunch time. I checked the last bunch of emails on the listserv and, according to the serious birders, one of the owls had flown away to the north earlier in the day but one owl remained on the dunes.  Soon we were trudging up the beach heading right to the sweet spot indicated in the emails.

Distance viewThe closer I got the more I worried that the bird would fly away (like they invariably seem to do) and I would miss the bird by minutes. I could see other birders stationed on the edge of the dunes but I was sure the bird would fly away just I got to within 50 feet of it. So as I walked up the beach, I asked everyone I came to, “Is the owl still there?”.   Such is my luck with rare birds that I have doubts even within sight of the target bird. This is certainly not my first go at chasing a rare bird – I’ve missed plenty in my time.  Birds are where you find them and timing is everything.

But, today, we were lucky. The bird was right where he was reported to be, snoozing in the sun just about 50 feet or so off the beach on a little hummock in the dunes. He was fully visible and cooperative.

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Now I say “he” but could have been a “she” or a juvenile.  My guide book says that the males are all white with some dusky spots on their feather tips but the females and juveniles have more dusky barring on their wings and backs so, from the photos, I’m thinking this bird is a female or maybe a young male. We got great views and lots of good photos. We watched a bit, took a bazillion pictures, and then headed on back down the beach happy with our encounter with this wonderful bird.  As we trudged through the sand getting back to the car, we got a good look at a bonus bird along the beach shrubs – Yellow Rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata).

bonus birdWe decided to stay overnight in the area – being retired does have its advantages – so we spent the afternoon exploring other parks around the area.  We caught the sunset right at the Inlet and it was gorgeous.

sunset indian riverIn the morning, we heading home but took a short detour to Broadkill Beach Road over by Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. It was hunting (deer) season so we opted not to go onto the Refuge.  Yeah, there is some sort of irony about hunting and killing animals on a Wildlife Refuge but I will save that thought for another day and another blog.  Our purpose in stopping by Prime Hook was to see if the Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) had all arrived for the winter and we didn’t really need to go through the gates at the Refuge to see the geese.  They usually hang out on the impoundments along Broadkill Beach Road and that is where we found them.  We got there just about sunrise so the geese were still on the impoundments.  We stopped to enjoy the sunrise and to listen to the murmuring of thousands of Snow Geese.

snow geeseThe Snowy Owl is an occasional visitor to this part of the world, but for the Snow Geese, the Delaware Shore is their winter home. They come here, along with Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and every type of duck imaginable, by the thousands.  And we also journey here every winter to see the birds and to marvel at their beauty and the miracle of life and migration that brings them here.

Mission accomplished, we headed home.

eyes frontPost Script: The Snowy Owl incursion continues and owls are being reported everywhere across the country….and, also right here in Anne Arundel County.  I’ll be out again soon checking them out….but a little bit closer to home….before the season ends.  You know you can never have enough pictures of rare birds or enough memories of being out there in the woods and fields looking for them.