Monday, February 17, 2014

Snowy Owl Adventure

I suspect that any birder paying attention to this winter's comings and goings of various birds is aware of the great snowy owl invasion in the eastern half of the U.S.  They say it is the greatest irruption in 50 years with a few individuals reaching as far south as northern Florida, southern Georgia and Mississippi.  In North Carolina the first report of a snowy was back in December.  Over the past 4-8 weeks at least one snowy owl has been seen regularly on Ocracoke Island, which is part of our Outer Banks barrier islands, and they believe there may be as many as 3 different birds.

My sister had never seen a snowy owl, and I had not seen one in North Carolina, so we had been monitoring the sighting reports and the weather for a couple of weeks.  I also had read on the listserv that a local birder, Peter Vankevich, had been very helpful in taking people out to the dunes in his permitted jeep to look for the snowy owls. This past Saturday and Sunday worked well for our schedules to make a trip to Ocracoke to try for a snowy.

It had snowed a lot for Chapel Hill last Wednesday and Thursday, but it was already melting assisted by the rain that was falling Saturday morning as we left.  Our first stop was to visit Mattamuskeet NWR to see what was about.  It was past prime winter birding for there, but we did see quite a few tundra swans.  A trumpeter swan had been found a couple of weeks earlier, but the staff told us it had not been reported again.  We also saw the usual ducks--pintail, shoveler, American wigeon, gadwall, and blue-winged teal plus coots, but nothing particularly rare.

We then drove over to the Swan Quarter ferry dock to catch our boat over to Ocracoke to find that even though the skies were now clear, the high winds had caused the normal Saturday afternoon trip to be cancelled.  We were also told that even if we drove the 2.5 hours to get to the Hatteras ferry, it might also be cancelled.  We figured it was worth making the effort so we headed to Manteo, which is on the way to Hatteras, to check on a band-tailed pigeon that has been coming to a feeder at a home there for several weeks.

We arrived at the home about dusk, and after 15 minutes of scanning all the surrounding trees and shrubbery, we found no roosting pigeon.  I called the Hatteras ferry and was told that because of the high winds the last ferry for the day was at 6 PM.  We had no chance of making that ferry either, so we decided to stay in Kill Devil Hill's for the night, and drive down early the next day when the ferry would be running again.  It meant we could have a nice meal at one of my favorite dinner spots--Basnight's Lone Cedar restaurant.  We had a leisurely seafood meal with a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.  We checked into our motel and spent the evening watching the Olympics.

We were on the road just after 6 AM to make the 65 mile drive down to the Hatteras ferry.  We watched the sun rise on a clear but chilly morning that fortunately had little wind.  The ferry ride was uneventful, and we arrived about 9:10.  Peter had said to meet him at the airport at 9:15.  We got there at 9:25 but Peter was not there.  When I called him we found he and several other birders were close by watching one of the owls out in the dunes.  He came back to pick us up, along with 4 other birders who had just arrived.

We were at the owl location within 5 minutes, and were able to get very nice views of the bird from about 100 feet for a few minutes before a photographer moved too close to it causing it to fly away.  Another couple from Chapel Hill relocated the bird down the dunes next to the airport runway.  The 4 of us were able to watch it from about the same distance as before for a few more minutes before the commotion of many birders up in the dunes caused it to fly again.  I should have taken some pictures of it at the second spot, but at least I got one pretty good one of it at the first site.

The owl was soon found again, but this time it had landed 300 yards further down the dunes.  It could be viewed in a scope, but it was not ideal, so we decided to stop bothering it.  Peter had emailed me the photo below of one of the owls that he had taken last Thursday.  We do not know if it is of the same bird that we found on Saturday.

After touring around the very small village of Ocracoke, my sister and I went back to catch the ferry to Hatteras.  It seemed like most of the people we had seen on the dunes watching the snowy owl were also on the boat with us.

We drove back to Manteo to have another go at the band-tailed pigeon.  This is only the 3rd documented band-tailed pigeon for the state which makes it a much rarer bird for our state than the snowy owl.  We found it perched in a tree, snoozing and mostly ignoring the birders staring up at it.  I tried to get a decent picture, but couldn't do better than the one above (click on any photo to enlarge).  I finally gave up hope that it would come down to feed, and we piled back into the car for our 4 hour ride home.  My next post will be in early March just before I leave for my birding trip to Morocco.  Stay tuned!