Monday, March 8, 2010

Snowy Surprise

On Saturday I met up at Quogue Wildlife Refuge with Charlie VanTassel who was in town visiting relatives.  He is an accomplished and talented photographer residing in San Diego and a real nice guy.  A gallery of his more recent photography can be seen here: Charlie VanTassel Photography  Even though the temps were hitting the low 50s for the first time since November, the birds were few and far between.  Charlie did spot some Golden Crowned Kinglets (below) that I would have walked right past.  He didn't believe me on the ID, but I was 90% sure due to the very small size and of course, the golden crown.  I guess they look and behave a bit more different on the West coast.

The next stop was Dune Rd. in pursuit of Harlequin Ducks and Northern Harriers and anything else we could stumble upon.  The inlet was quiet with some expected pelagics hanging out (Loons, Mergansers, Eiders).  I thought I had spotted 2 Harlequin Ducks across the inlet but I couldn't get a positive ID so we moved on.  After stopping for a Great Blue Heron we looked up and noticed a Northern Harrier.  I was able to move to a parking lot and get the bird banking but neither of us could pull off a good shot.  Further down the road we spotted another Harrier and again played the waiting game.  Charlie was right in that the bird was going to make a big loop, but it sneaked up on us and moved south before we could get a photo.  I was able to get this habitat shot after it had moved to the South side of the bay:

We made a stop in Quogue along the bay but it only provided some views of a Yellow-Rumped Warbler.  After Charlie treated me to lunch we parted ways and I gave Dune Rd. one more shot on my way home and it certainly paid off.  I was getting ready to write the afternoon off when I spotted something light and raptor shaped - it was just a glimpse and for all I knew it could have been a plastic bag.  I parked and climbed the dune slowly knowing that if it were a harrier it would probably flush right away but once I got the bird in my sight, its piercing yellow eyes made it apparent that it was the rare and elusive Snowy Owl.  This photo is what I first saw:

I've only seen a Snowy Owl once before, about 2 miles East of the location I found this one at, in December of 2008.  I knew (or assumed) from that experience that Snowy Owls don't flush easily and are rather tolerable of human presence, so I knew I could get fairly close if I could find away around the heavy vegetation.  Just to the west there was a small deer path through the thick bayberry shrubs and as I came around the dune, the Snowy turned its head and locked its big eyes on me.  It actually was a bit of a challenge to get good shots with the eyes as it spent most of its time ignoring me, tucking its head into its feathers and trying to get some rest.

I texted one of my bosses who has a great appreciation for birds as there was still more than an hour left of sunshine and thought he would be interested in seeing it.  Turns out he was out on Dune Rd. for a drive with his family and 10 minutes later we were all admiring the beauty of this bird - even his 2 year old son got in on the action.  After an hour I had to get going, which was unfortunate as the light was only going to get better, but I was thrilled to have gotten so close to this species and to have seen one at all.  So far as I understand this was only the 4th or 5th Snowy Owl seen on Long Island this season (a very low number) and based on the date and weather conditions it is likely this was a bird moving back to Canada from New Jersey or somewhere similar.  It's a shame that Charlie wasn't able to experience this, as Snowy Owls don't exactly hang out in San Diego, but (fortunately) he wasn't too broken up about it.

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