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A Good Year to See Snowy Owls

ear Bird Folks,

This is supposed to be a good year to see Snowy Owls. I’ve always wanted to see one. Any advice?

– Charlotte, Falmouth, MA


You aren’t alone, Charlotte,

There are a lot of people who have Snowy Owls on their bucket list, including my son, Casey. Maybe I should hook you two up. Do you drive? (Because Casey doesn’t.) Oh, he’s plenty old enough to drive, but for some reason the thought of obtaining a license hasn’t seriously crossed his mind. If he’s ever going to see a Snowy Owl, the bird will have to come to him. The other alternative is for me (or you) to drive him to potential Snowy Owl locations. Some parents might think driving a child to see birds would be a pain in the neck, but it’s fine with me. It’s better than driving him to a swim meet or wrestling practice. I always felt bad for those parents. Bird watching might not be the most action-packed hobby, but at least birds don’t smell like chlorine or sweat.

Snowy Owl visits to our area run in cycles. Last winter there were only a handful of sightings, but this year there have been tons of reports. The first sighting I heard about was on Duxbury Beach. Duxbury Beach is a great birding spot, but getting there is tricky. Cars aren’t permitted to drive on the beach, but they can drive on the dirt road that parallels the beach. However, only folks with beach stickers are allowed to use this road and the road is insanely guarded by the beach patrol. The banks in Duxbury don’t have nearly the security this dirt road has. Luckily for me my long-time birding pal, Fahy, lives in Duxbury and she has a sticker. All I had to do was promise Fahy a free lunch and she readily agreed to drive Casey and me out to the beach to look for the diurnal hunting owls. As with most hobbies, birding can be hit or miss, and this was a miss. We saw no signs of any owls. However, we did see a flock of Lapland Longspurs (yes, they are real birds) and lunch was delicious, so the day wasn’t a total waste.

The following day a customer walked in with a picture of a Snowy Owl that he had taken with his iPhone…his iPhone! This bird was seen on Wing Island, which is just behind Brewster’s Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. The next morning was Sunday, so Casey and I got up early and headed for the museum. Because it was early and the museum didn’t open for several hours, I thought it would be okay to park in the staff parking area, which was empty. It wasn’t okay. A bearded guy came running out, complaining about our parking habits. I apologized and asked if he had heard any news of the owl. He hadn’t. He was more focused on proper parking and less interested in wildlife. (The Duxbury Beach Patrol would love this guy.) The irony was, after all the parking hassle, the tide was too high and the trail to the island was under water. We were back in the car and out of the parking lot a minute after we got there. On the way home we stopped at some adjacent town beaches, in the hope of seeing the owl. But I forgot it was Sunday. In case you don’t know, Sunday is Brewster’s official “Take the Dog to the Beach Day.” We saw plenty of people and lots of hounds, but all the birds, even the gulls, had already been forced to leave.

On Thanksgiving we tried again. While most folks were home, eating dead birds, we went out looking for live ones. The day was windy and very cold…too cold to walk the beach, so we drove to every boat landing we could think of and scoped the beaches from a distance. Once again, we had no luck. We even stopped at the town landing at the end of Chatham’s Cow Yard Lane. Birding from the Cow Yard can be very rewarding, but even if it wasn’t, how could we not stop at a place called “the Cow Yard”? It’s one of the best street names on the Cape, almost as good as Sandwich’s Popple Bottom Road.

Then we got a break. On Black Sunday (or whatever silly name they call the Sunday after Thanksgiving) photographer Doug came into the store with several beautiful photos of a Snowy Owl that he had just seen on the south end of Nauset Beach. As Casey and I stared enviously at the photos, we both let out a collective sigh. Doug must have sensed our despair and instantly offered to drive us down to the end of Nauset the very next day. Sweet!

The ORV crowd is familiar with Nauset’s outer beach, which runs from Orleans to Chatham. But in the twenty years I’ve lived in Orleans, I’ve never been out there. Typically, I’m not a big fan of seeing vehicles on beaches. I figure enough of the country is already covered in cars and asphalt; nature should be allowed to have a few places for itself. Nevertheless, even I have to admit it was pretty cool out there. The Atlantic was roaring on one side of us, while the picturesque dunes sat silently on the other. Not a bad way to spend a late fall afternoon.

The first birds we came upon were a flock of about fifty Snow Buntings. These handsome little birds had just arrived from their nesting grounds in the high Arctic. Under most circumstances seeing a flock of beautiful Snow Buntings would have been the highlight of any birding trip, but they weren’t the “snow” birds we were looking for. We drove on. We eventually arrived at the end of the beach and there were no owls to be seen anywhere, and it was getting dark. Casey and I looked at each other, both resolved to the fact that we had reached yet another dead-end. Then Doug raised his binoculars…. Oops, out of room. Until next week.