The “hunt” for snowy owls is on! South Shore photographers brave the winter elements in search of the nomad from the Arctic tundra.
By Patricia Abbate
In recent years, snowy owls, those magnificent raptors from the Arctic, have been taking up residence here in Massachusetts in record numbers during the winter months. Typically arriving in November, they usually head back to their polar breeding grounds in April. This means that for nearly half the year we have the rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of one of these regal visitors from the far North. They have been reported being seen on highways, in fields, backyards, airports, utility poles, and beaches. But for many, a glimpse is not nearly enough, as scores of intrepid photographers routinely brave the elements to capture a digital image of this ghostly bird of prey.
Seeing a snowy owl for the first time is thrilling. I know it certainly was for me. For years I hoped to spy the golden-eyed owl. After seeing Facebook posts from friends as they excitedly shared their snowy owl sightings and photos, I knew the owls were all around me. However, it took many years before I finally spotted my first snowy owl last January in Plymouth. It was a magical experience as the large owl presented itself to me on a post, facing into the setting sun, on a quietly frigid late winter afternoon. The cover photo depicts that moment. This year I have spotted two so far, in hopes of seeing another during my next owl prowl. It is exhilarating to see them skimming across the tundra-like conditions of a South Shore barrier beach.
Many members of the Quincy-based South Shore Camera Club, of which I am also a member, are particularly motivated to head out on a wintry day, camera gear in tow, in the hopes of spotting and photographing a snowy owl. The area in and around Duxbury Beach is home to several snowy owls this season, and frequent sightings have been reported over the past two months. On any given morning or afternoon, you can be sure that folks with tripods, binoculars, and cameras in search of one or two of these winter neighbors will be out scouting for them, and hopefully, at a respectful distance.
For South Shore Camera Club member Dyanne Gardiner, efforts to see a snowy finally paid off a few months ago. She and a group of other club member snowy owl enthusiasts make the trip from Quincy to Duxbury Beach frequently, and their travels have yielded some spectacular shots. On a recent outing, Gardiner and fellow club members Jean Conley and Karen Walker bundled up and loaded their impressive photographic equipment into Walker’s SUV. Her vehicle boasts a Duxbury Beach sticker, a must for permission to drive the scenic areas of the secluded and pristine four-mile beach road where snowy spotting is most likely. If the friends have a lucky day, they will spot a snowy perched on a post overlooking the beach or perhaps resting on a saltmarsh.
Once spotted, Walker’s SUV becomes a make-shift yet effective blind. After dropping the windows, they line up their heavy, over-sized camera lenses on the open sills where their equipment is stabilized and ready to shoot. While keeping their distance, the photographers make the most of their situation and intently focus on their subject for as long as possible, capturing the special moment.
After seeing her first snowy owl late last year, Gardiner put her experience into words. “I was stunned at the beauty and the size, and was honored and literally awed that I was seeing this magnificent raptor in the wild right before my eyes. Mind you, my eyes were looking through a 500mm lens, which brought the animal up close and personal. I was mesmerized by the way he would turn his head as only an owl can do. I was captivated and amazed!” Her next goal is to capture a snowy owl in flight. “It’s challenging,” she admits. “Flight shots are really difficult to get, as it comes down to timing, hand-holding my “Big Mama” lens, which is very heavy, and trying to get it sharp enough. That’s what I’m striving for next!”
Norman Smith, Director of Milton’s Trailside Museum, has some words of caution for photographers, birders, and other snowy owl enthusiasts. Smith reports that some overly zealous owl chasers have been disturbing the snowy owls’ winter home here by “trampling over protected dunes and grasses, getting too close to the owls, causing them to fly away. You’ll notice that new signs are posted on Duxbury Beach in hopes of stopping this behavior,” he emphasizes. Noting that snowy owls are nocturnal and sleep during the day, being unintentionally disturbed by visitors looking to capture a photo or up-close glimpse does not give the owls a chance to roost. Smith asks that we “be respectful of the owl’s territory. If you notice the owl moves his head to look at you and then flies off, you’re too close.”
Smith has been rescuing snowy owls from the perils of Logan Airport for the last 36 years. The airport presents a tundra-like habitat where many birds first take up residence, as they look for a home that mimics Arctic-like conditions. In the winter of 2013-2014, Smith relocated 120 snowy owls to safe spots in Massachusetts, with the majority of them being released on Duxbury Beach. This year he has transported 23 owls to live here on the South Shore.
Owls leave their natural home in the northern Arctic in search of food. The number of owls that arrive here depends upon the status of their food supply – the lemming (a small, mouse-like rodent). During years when the lemming population drops, the owls fly south in search of a good feeding ground. According to Smith, some years lemmings are plentiful and some years not. Until the past few years, Smith relocated just 6-10 owls, on average, each season.
For the past several years, Smith has been banding the birds with transmitters to track and study their movements, including the effects of climate change. He notes that Greenland, once home to the snowy owl, is no longer a welcoming environment for them. “With the warming climate, the grass fields that sustained lemmings have been replaced with trees and forests that thrive in warmer weather, so the lemmings left. Without a food source, the habitat changed and the snowy owls left, too,” Smith notes.
As our Arctic visitors continue to call the South Shore home every winter, it’s good to know that we are neighbors with these beautiful birds, at least for a time.
Reprinted from the February issue of South Shore Senior News.