Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Snowy Owl on the Outer Banks

Back in fourth grade (and long before I was a birder), I was flipping through a magazine when I stumbled on a particularly interesting article.  It was about a Snowy Owl seen at Fort Fisher back in November 2001.  The story featured a two-page illustration depicting the most amazing, stark-white owl, gliding smoothly over the dunes.  It was the first bird that ever captured my imagination - and it was just a drawing.

Fast-forward to Tuesday - I was sitting in Anatomy class when I decided I should check the listserv.  I read the words "Snowy Owl" and just about lost it.  My heart was racing.  I honestly thought about just walking out of class and leaving right then and there - but I managed to get a hold of myself.  I immediately texted my dad, telling him that we would be going to the Outer Banks the next day.  He reluctantly agreed, knowing damn well how much I wanted to see that bird.  This was the first Snowy Owl in NC since the Fort Fisher bird twelve years ago.  I had to see it.

We (my dad and my friends Sam and Edward) left Raleigh around 4:30 in the morning, driving through the rain.  A nor'easter was pounding the Outer Banks, and we were the only people crazy enough to drive into it.  Once we made it onto the banks, we were greeted my pounding winds, driving rain, and pitch-black clouds looming overhead.  Highway 12 was under several inches of water.  If anything, this day would be an adventure.

Highway 12 on the way down to Hatteras looked more like a lake in some spots.
The weather on Hatteras itself was even worse.  We arrived at the parking area for Access Point 45, near where the bird was last seen the night before.  We stumbled along the beach with heavy rain stinging our faces and the wind nearly blowing us over.  The conditions were downright brutal.  

We fanned out over the wide beach in order to cover more ground. The rain began to die down.  I spotted a big white lump on the beach behind a pile of debris, so I snuck in closer to investigate.  I pulled up my binoculars, and the big white lump moved its head.  It was the Snowy!  I frantically waved and yelled for everyone to come see.

Snowy Owl - probably my favorite bird, period.
My heart skipped a beat - I was actually looking at a real, live Snowy Owl!  We had only been there for 30 minutes, and we had found it!  There was no one else as far as the eye could see - we had the owl all to ourselves.  I had expected hordes of birders to be out there, but I guess the storm had kept the less-insane at home.

After about a minute,  it suddenly lifted its wings and flew closer to the dunes.  It was a surreal moment, watching this big, graceful white bird gliding over the desolate beach.  We observed the owl at a considerable distance for a while longer, until it eventually flew to the other side of the dunes and out of sight.  I was in awe.

Snowy Owl flying over the dunes
In an effort to find some interesting gulls, we headed further down the beach.  We found a flock consisting mostly of Great Black-backed Gulls, with a few Ring-billeds and Lesser Black-backed Gulls mixed in - but nothing unusual.  The sky down the beach was growing very dark.  This storm cell overtook us in several minutes, and we hunkered down in the dunes to avoid the lightning strikes.   We became completely rain-soaked and drenched that half-hour, enduring intense torrential rains.  Finally, the front passed, and we continued back down the beach.  If we hadn't just seen a Snowy Owl, it would have been a miserable return trek - but we couldn't have been happier just then.  The Snowy Owl was one of the most spectacular birds I've ever had the pleasure of seeing.  This epic "twitch" was one I will never forget.
Sam and I waiting the storm out.  Check out my duct-tape fix on my rain pants.
(Photo by Edward Landi)

1 comment:

  1. So glad you guys found it. Great job and a great post.

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