Monday, December 30, 2013

Winter Traffic Jam at the Beach for an Owl

A traffic jam on Wildlife Drive; the white specks in the water are overwintering Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens)
Kali and I enjoy visiting the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just north of Atlantic City, New Jersey during the winter to observe the overwintering waterfowl; we've paid a visit on or around New Year's Day for three years now - looks like we've got a tradition going.  Because the forecast showed last Saturday (December 29) would be the best day for a week, we took advantage of the sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50s F to make our annual migration. 

Forsythe is always a great place to visit but, this year there's a special "draw": two of the large number of Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca) that have erupted from the Arctic and which are spending the winter in the eastern United States have decided that Forsythe is good overwintering habitat.  We hoped we would be lucky, but we knew we'd enjoy the day regardless.

Upon reaching the refuge, we knew we were in for an unusual day.  First, the parking lot where people stop to register and pay their entrance fee was filled to capacity (usually, there are one or two cars when we visit).  Then, as we started on the 8-mile Wildlife Drive through the refuge, we could see cars everywhere.

Our first stop was a lone tree crowded by birdwatchers alongside the drive.  Sitting calmly about 15 feet off the ground was a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
Male Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
Another handsome Northern Pintail (slightly pixelated from being digitally enlarged)
Our second stop was alongside the drive were a large group of birdwatchers had gathered and were looking down the embankment into high grass and weeds.  I couldn't see what they were observing until one of the birdwatchers pointed out an American Bittern (Botarus lentiginosus) stalking mice.  Bitterns are so perfectly camouflaged that they all but blend into the grass and weeds they inhabit, so they are rarely observed on the ground.  I have no idea how these people found this bird (unless it flew in) because I could hardly see it even when they pointed it out to me.  This was only my second bittern ever, so I was excited.

We continued along the drive observing waterfowl until we came to a point at which all traffic stopped and everyone got out of their cars and crowded the verge.  Of course, we followed the crowd - and were rewarded with one of the highlights of our birdwatching careers: one of the Snowy Owls.  Jokingly, I said it looked like a soccer ball on the ground, and I immediately got some dirty looks from the other birders.  Below are the best pictures I could capture with my camera.  The first image was how the bird looked in the field; the second two images are digitally enlarged on the computer.  What a great day all around!


robin andrea said...

Wow! What a great way to end 2013. A lovely tradition. You and Kali really lucked out seeing that Snowy Owl. This post really makes me miss the coast. Beautiful there.

I'm really glad that so many people came out to see the splendid wildlife. Part of me would hate the crowds, but part of me would rejoice that there are still plenty of people on the planet who take the time to look.

Mark P said...

It would be a great thing to see a snowy owl. I don't expect ever to see one around here. I might have seen one once long ago in South Dakota (I think) at night while riding my motorcycle, but I'm not sure.

Scott said...

Robin Andrea: Yeah, Kali and I have really "lucked into" a nice tradition with out trips to the salt marshes at the end of the year. It really was beautiful, with clear blue skies, tawny salt marsh grasses, a nice breeze, and lots and lots of birds! I just wish that it didn't take 2-1/2 hours to get there.

And, yes, there were a lot of people, but most of them were dedicated birders and the camaraderie was palpable. There were a few people who were there just to see the owl (they were clearly impatient behind the wheel, and a few even sounded their horns when the traffic got really jammed, but in the end, the "crowd" really didn't bother us.

Scott said...

Mark: I DO read (and enjoy) CanisConfidimus, and it wasn't that long ago that you posted about riding your motorcycle at night accompanied by the ghostly owl. (See...I do remember!)

packrat said...

How I would love to see a Snowy Owl, you lucky dog.


Scott said...

Packrat: Becca's a lucky dog, but Kali and I do feel very lucky for having had the opportunity to see the Snowy Owl.