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Let It Snowy, Let It Snowy, Let It Snowy!

© Kim Nagy

Two years after a Snowy Owl irruption, those of us in the Northeast are once again in the midst of one. And this might be the biggest invasion yet.

Let It Snowy, Let It Snowy, Let It Snowy. These days, that's definitely my favorite tune. This new year has begun, just as 2013 ended … with magnificent Snowy Owls. Everything else takes a back seat when Snowy Owls are among us. The Snowy irruption of a couple of winters ago was small potatoes compared to this current one. Even Florida has reported a Snowy Owl.

Plum Island and Salisbury Beach near the mouth of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts have been off-the-charts great for us Bay Staters. My photography pals, Kim Nagy and Jim Renault, and I usually start our day's adventures at Plum Island and then continue on to Salisbury Beach.

On Sunday, January 4th, I decided to heed the Snowy Owl siren call and head over to Plum Island. I believed that if I went to Plum, they would come. I got there just at noon, and as soon as I pulled into the parking lot, I could see a bunch of people gathered around the fence facing the dunes with their cameras, spotting scopes, and binoculars. Had to be for a Snowy, I figured. And sure enough, there was one sitting on the dune, a little farther away than I liked but not bad. We watched it for a while as it turned its head this way and that, often looking right at the group huddled near the fence photographing it. I stayed there a while, hoping, of course, that it would decide to take off and maybe land closer. But no such luck.

© John Garp Harrison

I decided to make my way to Salisbury Beach, thinking I might have some good luck there. Once in the refuge, I looked toward the abandoned house located only a minute from the bridge. There was that distinct Snowy Owl form perched on the roof, with people watching and photographing the bird. I proceeded to enjoy the most exciting couple of hours imaginable. We watched the owl for a while, and then suddenly it took off from the roof and flew over the street and landed on a telephone pole. It stayed there a couple of minutes and then flew to a nearby tree. Then it quickly took off again, flying to another telephone pole and perching there for maybe ten minutes, before taking off and landing on the deck of a nearby house, staying there for another few minutes. Then it took off and flew back to the roof of the abandoned house.

That energetic owl was running us ragged. But no one minded. There was a big smile on everyone's face. This was an unforgettable encounter for everyone present. But it wasn't quite over yet. While we watched the owl back on the roof of the house, it suddenly took off and swooped down into the marsh, hunting for prey. It was unsuccessful in this attempt and surprised me by flying back up to the roof of the house. I wasn't ready for this, so I missed some landing shot opportunities. About ten minutes later, it took off to the marsh again for another attempt to find prey, again unsuccessful. But this time I was ready for it when it flew back to the same roof.

© John Garp Harrison

Monday morning, January 13th, the urge to go to Plum Island overcame me. I once again felt that "If I went there, they would come." So off I went. As I approached the bridge to the refuge entrance, I could see a lone woman watching something on the marsh. I scanned the marsh carefully as I slowly drove by. I quickly spotted the form of a Snowy Owl in the marsh, and quite close, too. I set up my tripod, sensing that this owl was going to hang around for a while. As soon as I looked at the owl through my lens, I could see prey below its talons.  It looked like a bird. I was happy to see the owl eating, since we've been worried that with so many Snowy Owls around right now, they would have trouble finding prey. It was very active, eating a little, looking around, eyes wide open, sometimes flying a few feet and then continuing to eat.  We watched this show for an hour before the bird finally decided to fly deeper into the marsh. This was absolutely the best encounter I've ever had with this species. I'm glad I answered the siren call to go to Plum Island that day.

As is often the case, while looking especially for one species, we are surprised by another species. While searching for Snowies at Salisbury Beach recently, we saw several Snow Buntings feeding on the snow. And on one of the recent 5º mornings, photographer Jim Renault and I watched a flock of Snow Buntings at the Medford Boat Club parking lot.  Snowy Owls might be the "big show" of the season, but that doesn't mean that that's all there is to see.

This year that has begun so well shows great promise. As the months go by, I hope that we have many more wildlife surprises awaiting us. Get out there! Happy New Year! Let It Snowy, Let It Snowy, Let It Snowy!

All images © John Garp Harrison, unless otherwise noted

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Adapted from a blog post that originally appeared in the Medford Wildlife Watch, Medford (MA) Transcript
Used with permission of GateHouse Media New England/Medford Transcript

Check out this BirdNote show about Snowy Owl irruptions.

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