Once the novelty of this record setting Snowy Owl invasion into the region started to subside, and the owls settled into spots where they could be found consistently, the real fun started. Having the Snowies around and in reliable locations for a good part of the winter has not only created many more photo possibilities than any other year I remember, but also allowed a lot more opportunity to watch them in action and get a better sense of their behavior. I think that knowing your subjects well is one of the most important factors in improving a wildlife photographer's results, and believe my own experience bears this out.
Many photographers ask me about my camera equipment, and I get the sense that some think that having the newest and best equipment will automatically make them better photographers. I was already a working photographer with professional gear when I started photographing birds (my first official bird picture, at left, was a Short-eared Owl), but many of my early attempts were pretty bad. That my results have improved over time, I think, has more to do with an increased knowledge of birds rather than the level of equipment I use, which has stayed relatively consistent. Think of any other trade or skill, like a carpenter or musician. Buying the best tools or an expensive instrument wont instantly make you better at it, it takes time and practice and a good knowledge your subject. So having a chance to study and learn about a bird, especially one as uncommon and beautiful as a Snowy Owl, is a rare opportunity and is one not to be missed.
The closest area to me where Snowy Owls have been seen regularly is Great Island in Old Lyme, and since it's only ten minutes from home I check there often. The first owl was found there just before Thanksgiving by Old Lyme birder Hank Golet. For a few days birders saw it there, occasionally being harassed by a resident pair of Peregrines, before it disappeared. Hank later spotted one in Old Saybrook on the breakwater near the Saybrook Point Lighthouse. That spot is only a short flight from Great Island, and by Christmas he reported one back on the island.
Late one afternoon as I drove down to the Great Island boat launch I was surprised to find the small parking lot full of cars and at nearly a dozen people on the viewing platform. Hank had his scope trained on the Snowy Owl on the far side of the island and the people took turns looking at, their excitement obvious. Soon anther was spotted on the near side of the island, across from Griswold Point, offering much closer views. The crowd was exuberant, especially when the sun began to set and the owls began to stir, flying between the Osprey nesting platforms. A family with young children arrived, hoping to watch the sunset, and wondered what the attraction was. They were obviously not birders, but seemed genuinely gleeful to see the owl show. The crowd was then treated to a spectacular view as the owls flew north on the island, the closer one passing right by the platform in the dusky pink sky.
The afternoon owl show at Great Island became an almost nightly event, although one of the owls quickly moved on. Modest crowds would attend in nice weather and usually just a few diehards when the frigid cold arrived. Most nights the owl could be found near the beach on the opposite side of the island, and would begin flying up to the platforms around sunset like clockwork. Once or twice I saw it out on Griswold Point , but only when duck hunters and dog walkers were not present. Because the owl was so far away, it was not worth taking pictures. Occasionally, a Short-eared Owl made an appearance there, especially during the cold spells. It seemed to hunt the area closer to the boat launch, away from the area where the Snowy was, where I was able to get some pictures of it one day.
Since getting good pictures of the Snowy Owl at Great Island was unlikely, I had to travel a bit to find locations where they were more accessible. The beaches of Long Island were the most promising. As I wrote in my previous post, I went there one day with a friend and we saw five owls in the dunes, but there were also lots of photographers there. I got plenty of pictures of the owls sitting on the dunes, and quite a few of them flying up and down the beach, the latter because some people were a little over zealous in their efforts to photograph the owls.
I considered going back there when things quieted down a bit, and still may, but it's a long trip for me and I'd rather work areas closer to home. Snowies have been seen at Hammonasset, but the sightings are sporadic and usually pretty distant, as well. One bitterly cold and windy day I watched an owl as it slept on the roof of a pavilion near West Beach. I decided not to bother photographing it because of the location, but was amused to watch as it fended off repeated dives by a Merlin with raised wings. A couple other times I watched an owl out on the beach from the end of the Cedar Island Trail, but it was too far for photographs. On those occasions, I had to leave just when the owl started to stir in the late afternoon because the park was closing (one of the big drawbacks to Connecticut parks).
Many of the best spots to see Snowy Owls in Connecticut are in the western half of the state. At Long Beach in December I was able to get some pictures of an owl perching on different trees, along with some shots of the mud covered owl from the last post. After visiting a couple spots in western Connecticut and several in Rhode Island, I decided to concentrate my efforts in our neighboring state since the opportunities seemed more plentiful and the distance for me to travel was about the same.
My usual route took me through Westerly, Charlestown and West Kingston in the morning and then Jamestown and Middletown in the afternoon. In November I was able to get some pictures of Snowy Owls at the Charlestown Breechway and at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown. Later I saw them in Westerly, near Misquamicut Beach and at Beavertail State Park in Jamestown, but picture wise the best results were at Sachuest.
When they first arrived, the owls at Sachuest mostly stayed on the rocks near the southeastern shore of Aquidneck Island, where the refuge is located. There were as many as four Snowy Owls there. After several weeks some were reported near the parking area and visitor's center, hunting in the open fields in the early morning and late afternoon. Sachuest quickly became the best location for the owls.
Some people were able to photograph owls near the parking lot with rabbits or other prey, although I was not so fortunate. One afternoon a Snowy hung out in the grass near the parking area, at times near a herd of deer, drawing big crowds of spectators. Just after the sun set, it flew out over the field adjacent to the parking lot and began hunting, hovering in place like a Rough-legged Hawk in the strong wind.
Another night, while leaving the refuge, I saw the silhouette of an owl on the dunes at Sachuest Beach. I was able to pull into the parking lot and watch and photograph as it prepared for its evening of hunting in the orange afterglow.
One day I pulled into the parking lot at Sachuest Point in the mid-afternoon and got out of my car. I immediately spotted a tawny bird flying in the adjacent field which I thought was a Northern Harrier, which are common there, or Short-eared Owl. I grabbed my camera and started shooting the bird, which to my great surprise turned out to be a Barn Owl.
I was able to get pictures as it worked its way through the upper fields near the parking area and down to the capped landfill, then back to the top. For nearly an hour it hunted, diving to the ground for prey, and after a few minutes flying up to continue its search.
It turns out that the Barn Owl had been seen for a few days, although the word was slow to get out. It became a somewhat of a regular, coming out in the late afternoon most days, hunting near the parking lot. Soon the Barn Owl became as big an attraction as the Snowy Owls, drawing crowds of birders and photographers on a nightly basis, especially on weekends when the parking lot overflowed and dozens of birders and photographers lined the fences waiting for the owls to appear.
I tried to visit at least once a week to take advantage of the opportunity. Talking to some of the local birders, I learned that another Barn Owl had been found dead earlier in the winter, apparently killed and eaten by a Snowy Owl. Every time I watched it, the Barn Owl seemed to hunt with an amazing success rate and little disturbance from the Snowy Owls or any other raptors, save for the occasional arial duel with a passing harrier. The refuge seemed to be a haven for birds of prey, and in addition to the Barn and Snowy Owls, there were several Northern Harriers, a Merlin, a Peregrine Falcon, a Coopers Hawk and a Red-tailed Hawk all frequenting the area.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE - I recently had a free afternoon and decided to head to Sachuest Point, hoping for an encore performance. When I arrived there were a group of photographers in the parking lot, looking rather grim. I was told that two days earlier some one reported seeing the Barn Owl being attacked in mid-air by a Snowy Owl and knocked to the ground. When it tried to fly away it was chased and knocked to the ground again by a harrier, and had not been seen since. We waited for a while, and as the light faded without any sighting of the Barn Owl, so did our hopes of seeing it again. We walked around to other fields near the visitor's center, without luck, so I headed back to the parking lot. From there I saw a Snowy Owl in the lower fields take flight and make a bee line for the field that I just left. I tried to alert a few other photographers walking back from the field that the owl was headed their way. They turned to see it speeding across the field and saw the Barn Owl take flight from the grass heading towards a nearby stand of cedar trees where it apparently roosted by day, with the Snowy in hot pursuit. By the time I got around the visitor's center I could see a harrier diving into the cedars as the Barn Owl ducked into the lower branches for cover. The Snowy returned and perched atop one of the cedars while the harrier dove at it repeatedly. The Snowy Owl stayed perched on the cedar tree, as if lying in wait for the Barn Owl, flying out once to duel with another Snowy passing the area, then returning to its perch.
It's unclear what has caused the the sudden change in harmony and the resulting drama. Back in the parking lot another photographer who stayed in the field showed us a distant picture he got of the Barn Owl sitting in the grass eating a mouse before the Snowy chased it. Everyone was happy to see it alive and still able to hunt, but for how long will the show go on?