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Irruptions, Snowy Owls, and Holiday Traditions “Down y Ocean”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I did something I said I would never do: spend a good chunk of a day in hunt of a rare bird that’s been sighted. I am truly impressed, amazed, and fascinated by bird-watching enthusiasts who will travel for miles or hours for a glimpse of a bird.

You see, my theory for not engaging in that practice is that … Birds fly away. My (tongue-in-cheek) thinking is: Just because a bird has been in a spot does not mean it will ever go there again. And if so, finding yourself in the same spot as said bird at the exact same time are pretty low odds. Pull out binoculars and the bird is sure to flit away. A camera? – good as gone.

That’s why I was surprised to find myself trudging through the sand on the beach Sunday morning at Delaware Seashore State Park instead of following through with my annual holiday tradition of some R&R “downy ocean”,  browsing the artsy shops of downtown Rehoboth. The only formal bird watching I had planned was watching the seagulls as I indulged in Thrasher’s french fries along the boardwalk.

A hint of the quest-to-be started Friday afternoon. Once I set my campsite at Cape Henlopen State Park, I went to the park’s Hawk Watch platform for … a great view of the ocean. A couple was there and asked if I knew where the snowy owl was. Nope; I hadn’t heard of any rare owl sightings. Later, when I returned to my campsite I did some reading in my field guides about the bird.

Snowy owls live in the Arctic and will venture south during the winter into Canada and the northern United States. But about every four years, depending on food availability, a very few are sighted further south. In the birding world, seeing a snowy owl in Delaware is a pretty big deal.

But a rare sighting was not going to change my weekend plans. I wasn’t giving up my quiet time in order to chase an owl that could be anywhere by now. But I made a mental note that if I saw a big white bird perched in a tree, I could consider myself lucky.

Saturday morning plans included a hike around the park. I stopped at the nature center and the naturalist asked me if I had seen the snowy owl. Uh-oh. “No ….”. I was starting to feel a little guilty that I didn’t seem to have the requisite ‘I’m-a-member-of-a-bird-club’ interest in driving after a snowy owl.

In fact, all thoughts of snowy owls left my mind as I spent the rest of the day browsing through a bookstore, sampling tea mixes, and looking at funky jewelry in the shops of the beach town. This was turning out to a perfect “girly” R&R week-end.

I returned to the park late Saturday afternoon to refresh for a dinner reservation and stopped by the Point for a dramatic view of the Delaware Bay / Atlantic Ocean at sunset. Two guys, one with a birding scope,  were headed in my direction. I asked them what they had seen on the beach. They asked me if I seen … the snowy owl.

Apparently, either the same, or another, owl was spotted about 10 miles further south along the coast. They encouraged me to go look for it on Sunday (just after sunrise!) and gave me parking directions. I guessed they probably wouldn’t understand that actually, a spa body treatment was on my agenda for Sunday ….

But Sunday morning I woke with the sunrise. I dismantled my campsite and decided to take an early morning hike before heading into town. Hiking would clear my mind, making it easier to decide if I wanted a salt scrub or a mud masque. A quick stop at the Nature Center and …. more talk of the snowy owls. Apparently, there are now several in the area. Two spent Saturday in the dunes at Delaware Seashore State Park.

If the birds were at Henlopen on Thursday and Friday, flew south for Saturday, who’s to say they aren’t flying further south for Sunday???? But I’m finally sold on the idea of looking for them. I head down the coastal highway to find the proper parking area, trying to remember where exactly those two guys told me to go. I trudge up to the top of the dune crossing and see … lots of surf fishing people and cars. No trees. No snowy owl. I watch as someone off in the distance, with binoculars, slowly trudges through the sand in my direction. He points to where the birders, and the owl, are — teeny tiny specks way off in the distance – a healthy hike through the sand.

The red circle highlights the birders. The arrow points to the tree with the owl.

group of birders2

Mr. Helpful Birder said the owl’s been there since 7:30am. It’s now about 11:00am. What are the odds it will still be sitting in the exact same spot after my hike through the dunes to reach it? But hey, any day walking on the beach is a good day. If the bird flies off, I’ll do some seashell collecting.

So now I’m on a mission – to get to that snowy owl as soon as I can. Mr. Helpful Birder calls out to me that there are surf scoters right ahead. I don’t see folks lined up to see them, therefore they can’t be rare. No time for surf scoters!

I meet another birder on his way back. Mr. Friendly Gentleman Birder stops to talk with me about the owl (it’s still there!). No time for small talk!

It’s rather strenuous vigorously walking through the sand. My hat comes off. My gloves come off. I’m sweating. This is turning into a calorie-burning excursion. But I’ll feel less guilty when I devour those boardwalk french fries. Getting closer, I see a white spot in the tree …

its there

Finally, I reach the spot. The snowy owl is still there !!!

snowy owl

It really is a fun moment. The bird is very beautiful, much more beautiful than I expected. It’s exciting to see it so close. A birder lets me view it through their scope. I take a few pics with my little point & shoot camera. A much better pic, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website allaboutbirds dot org:


Then what does one do? Is there proper birding etiquette for times like this? Is it OK to watch the bird for just a few minutes and leave? (There’s still time for window-shopping!)

I trudge back to the car along with two other birders. They have a full agenda of other bird-watching spots for the day. Me, I’m heading into town.

Yes, my caper ended up being fun! I enjoyed the conversations with the other birders. The subsequent emails and Facebook posts created excitement. It was neat that a little event in the big drama of the world could hold a touch of specialness.

Here’s an newspaper article about the weekend’s event.

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