Our Long, Mad Winter of the Snowy Owl

By Catherine Quayle

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It is 24 degrees, and we are standing in the road leading to Breezy Point, Queens, waiting for the mystery shuttle. Its mystery derives from the fact that sometimes it does not exist. We pass 15 minutes kicking at the pavement and blowing on fingers until my friend Tracey begs us a ride from a man loading up a pickup truck, and he kindly ferries us the three miles down the road to where the national park begins, explaining that, as a resident of this private community, he is not supposed to do this.

Snowy owl in snag
A snowy owl surveys the scene from a snag at Breezy Point, Queens in January 2014.
Photo by Roman T. Brewka.

But we are on a quest to find three snowy owls we have heard about through our secret birder communication channels, and we are probably harmless.

It has only been two years since the last time the snowies came down en masse from the Arctic to hunt among us. Although such irruptions do occur every few years, likely due to the boom-or-bust lemming economy of the tundra, this winter’s has been really big, with owls sighted in Northern states in apparently unprecedented numbers and a few straying as far as the Carolinas and even Florida. It is an event so hard to ignore that people who don’t know or care about birds know and care about it, and some individual owls have become local media celebrities. It was just east of here, across Jamaica Bay, that Kennedy Airport officials reportedly shot three snowy owls in December, to the alarm of bird advocates and travelers alike.

And in the two years since I last saw a snowy owl here, Breezy Point has suffered the devastating attention of Hurricane Sandy, with more than 300 houses destroyed by flooding and fire. Our Samaritan tells us he is still living with his in-laws waiting for his home to be rebuilt. From the main road, though, the houses we can see appear spiffy and freshly renovated, and the clapboard island vibe still feels far from the city of which it is somehow a part.

At its tip, this narrow peninsula hosts 200 acres of relatively unmolested shoreline and high, grassy dunes. Though it is strewn today with more odd flotsam than usual, including a truck tire big enough to hide in, the beach has a bereft loveliness, sprawling in every direction across an obscene amount of undeveloped land. I can’t resist saying the words New York City out loud here, like an incantation, as if I have personally transformed one known thing into another.

The owls are absurdly easy to find. We haven’t been on the beach more than ten minutes when I see a small white lump among the sparse grasses. I lift my binoculars, and its head rotates on that famously flexible axis, half-moon eyes closed against the light. When I look back for Tracey she has inexplicably fallen over in the sand while trying to get something out of her bag. I am waving at her, but she seems to be laughing and doesn’t see me. There’s a stab of guilt that I have already found it, the thing we are looking for.

We are careful to keep a respectful distance, so much so that, even through binoculars, it is little more than a white Weeble. Nonetheless, as we stealth-walk between the bird and the shore, it takes flight.

“We just did that thing we weren’t supposed to do,” I say.

“No,” Tracey assures me, “we weren’t too close.” At least I think that’s what she says. We are wrapped up to our eyes against the cold and wind, and neither of us can hear a thing.

“What?” I say.

“What?” she responds.

Seeking snowy owls at Breezy Point
Seeking snowy owls at Breezy Point, Queens.
Photo by Tracey Keevan.

I have reason to be concerned about flushing the owl, though. It has been a topic of some controversy on birding message boards all across the snowies’ path. These owls are “notoriously hypersensitive” to disturbances, some insist, not just because they roost on open ground, but because it is surely hunger that has driven them so far south. Fortunately, according to researchers, this last part is simply not true.

“It’s a myth that they’re starving to death,” David Brinker told me. He is an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and one of the creators of Project SNOWstorm, which has been tracking the snowies’ movements this year.

The sheer number of the new population—perhaps 1,000 to 1,500 birds compared with 100 in a normal year—means that these territorial hunters have to spread out over a wide area. And juveniles can’t compete with adults, so they head south.

“Just like teenage kids, they want to get away from home. Some might go 100 miles away, and some might go to another continent,” said Brinker.

And once they get past the forested regions of Canada, they seek open spaces and especially coastal areas rife with delicious waterfowl, and there they appear to do well.

Still, hunting is a precarious way to make a living, and it requires a low profile, especially since owls are often mobbed by crows or attacked by other raptors once found out. It’s even more precarious for juveniles, 60 to 70 percent of which won’t survive their first year, Brinker says. Becoming habituated to humans is also perilous to these migrants, who spend most of their lives in places where people, and their fast-moving machinery, do not exist.

All good reasons to “keep well back,” as ethical guidelines from the American Birding Association advise.

But how close is too close?

This is one question that pervades the online discussions. It would seem to be a matter of common sense. “If you notice the bird getting nervous, you are too close,” one photographer, Roman Brewka, told me.

Nonetheless, there are debates, and whenever someone takes it upon himself to set a limit, things can get prickly. “A devil’s advocate would ask which laws were being violated, and where it’s stated that 100 yards is the critical distance?” someone objects during one tense thread. And accusations of who got too close to what when are soon flying.

The skirmishes inevitably start when someone reports having seen a photographer aggressively flushing an owl in pursuit of a shot. These are the birdarazzi, the “ardent and persistent individuals,” as Brinker calls them, “who leave the crowd to go closer.” You’ll find other, less generous, ways of describing them if you care to peruse the message boards.

While no one approves of this behavior, the outsized reactions to it can also rankle, and some worry about the potential for “bird rage” incidents in the field.

In a video posted online from Boundary Bay, British Columbia in 2012, a lone photographer systematically frightens off three snowy owls, one by one, while a crowd of onlookers stand at an audibly appalled remove. When the man returns to the group, one birder points a gloved finger in his face and says, “You should be ashamed.” Another calls him a “moron,” and for a moment, a physical altercation seems possible. In another video from the same spot earlier that year, three photographers with lenses as big as an owl get so close to one snowy that they seem to be trying to photograph down its throat. The owl, not surprisingly, flies. The videos were posted to shame the photographers, and in comments below, people express their desire to “read them the riot act” and “smack them with their tripods.”

It is, of course, not just photographers who cross the line. There are plenty of incidents involving other birders, as well as assorted curious folk who don’t know the rules and are just seeking proximity to the wild and rare.

Concern for the owls’ welfare certainly underlies much of the anger in these situations, as does the garden-variety outrage we feel anytime someone breaks clear rules of etiquette, especially when that behavior spoils things for the rest of us. But bubbling beneath, I also sense something deeply basic about how best to capture a moment—a top-ten, life-list moment, in both senses of the phrase.

For some, a photograph is required. Or a check mark on a list. For others, just being able to tell the story later is enough. (And who doesn’t love a good bird story? I highly recommend trotting one out at your next party.) In extreme cases, there might be a literal capture involved, as was recently the case in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, when a falconer was spotted repeatedly trying to trap a snowy (legally, I might add).

First snowy owl spotted
The author and friend spot their first snowy.
Photo by Tracey Keevan.

For all of the above, it’s easier than ever to locate interesting avian visitors. With the database eBird, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, it is possible to access recent bird reports right from your phone while, say, standing on a desolate beach (and to feel a bit like a badass doing so). This is a phenomenally cool development in birding data and technology, but when it comes to owls or other sensitive species, it can get a little tricky. The Cornell Lab encourages participants to keep such reports on the vague and general side. And the Project SNOWstorm researchers, who followed the movements of 22 owls they had outfitted with radio transmitters, were careful to keep real-time location data under wraps, waiting three days before making the owls’ movements public.

It is already taboo in most birding circles to reveal the precise location of any roosting owl, not just snowies, which is why you’ll often come across this sort of secret-agent communiqué: “Owl is present at the previously reported location.” There is a long-eared owl that winters on Central Park’s Cedar Hill, but you’ll have to torture me for its exact coordinates. (Hint: look in the direction all the binoculars are pointing.)

It was a little shocking, then, when this year I began seeing detailed directions to specific snowies all over the place, even in my hometown newspaper.

This is a reflection, I believe, of just how foreign and magnificent a snowy owl is and how badly we want to see one, and for others to see it too. It is a true alien, having navigated landscapes most of us will never see, much less inhabit for frigid months under dark skies. Do we imagine a human-level awareness behind the yellow eyes? If so, that can be hard to reconcile with the bird’s utter disinterest in actual humans. We are nothing to it, and as a result, it is immense. Also? It’s an owl that is white.

How close is too close? But then how close is close enough? The tension between these two questions is what makes the encounter so desirable—trying to determine where the narrow demilitarized zone lies between them and the thrill of existing there.

The meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg often uses the phrase “getting used to it” to describe the Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice, by which she means, I believe, learning to be at ease with those rare moments when we feel briefly, fully present. These are the moments that stand in contrast to all the countless numb, forgettable, awful, stupid and scattered ones.

They take practice because they can be fairly uncomfortable. We’re often in a hurry to get them over with so we can write about them, discuss them over a cocktail or look at the photos. This may be the same nagging concern often raised about the ubiquitous cell phone camera, which despite its substantial ability to elevate the mundane, has made it even easier to skim across these top-ten moments and live them primarily in the past. Remember when we took that picture of us doing that thing?

Looking at a rare bird simplifies this dilemma, especially for those of us poorly endowed in the camera department. The near-perfect moment, out of time, when it is possible to fully inhabit ourselves while also leaving ourselves behind, this is the moment of the owl.

Snowy owl in flight
Photo by Roman T. Brewka.

It is 15 minutes later, as we’re making slow progress along the dunes, when the SUV materializes and drives toward us across the empty beach. We assume an innocent posture, since we are surely about to be reprimanded (satellite surveillance?), but at the wheel is a young father, with two tiny bundled-up people on his lap.

He gives us the equivalent of a birders’ password: “Did you see the peregrine?” He has a British accent, which somehow lends a clandestine air to the whole desolate-beach transaction, and now we do see the falcon perched about 100 yards away right on the sand. It is storm-cloud blue under its medieval helmet.

He reports that they have seen their own snowy owl, an apparently different one, and the whole family climbs down to help us find it too. The twins, who are maybe three, totter across the sand, looking for treasure. They consider a dead horseshoe crab while the adults scan the dunes looking for white lumps. The girl squeals when she sees a child’s beach chair buried in the sand. It is the same color as her hot-pink ski suit. The dad brushes off the chair and tosses it into the car.

Snowy owl on groundcover
A Breezy Point snowy owl at ground level.
Photo by Tracey Keevan.

“Which do you like better,” he asks her, “the owl or the chair?”

She weighs the question, then: “Chair.”

“I am going to hold that against you when you are older,” he says.

“What if the owl were pink?” I ask, and she is struck dumb by this complete reframing of the issue. It is also possible she doesn’t hear me.

We don’t find their owl, but before we part ways, the father urges us to climb into the SUV, all five of us crushed into the tiny front space, so we can drive closer to the peregrine, which does not mind the vehicle and lets us approach. There is a sense of transgression here, but it is thrilling to be so close. Even the twins are impressed.

Back on foot, we find long-tailed ducks diving in the icy surf. They too are emissaries from the far north. With their geometric black-and-white markings and long graceful tail feathers, they exhibit an exotic winter glamour that is stunningly out of place in these workaday waters off Coney Island.

And now two other humans approach, small dots, growing larger.

“You looking for the bird?” a man with a small, unleashed dog asks us when we meet. “It’s right down there on the beach. Can’t miss it.”

And it is right down there, another owl, out in the open, perched on a collection of twigs, presumably unconcerned with people or dogs. We can see its white shape from a long distance away, and however we pass it, on the dunes or by the water, it seems we will be too close, so we opt to stay our course along the shoreline. And then it is there, near enough to see vividly through binoculars, the heavy brown streaks on its breast distinguishing it from the one before. Tracey is able to get some close-up photos with her zoom.

My fingers aren’t working well. I feel chilled and tense, anxious to keep moving before we scare this one off too. But it sees us and doesn’t care. It blinks and swivels its head, dismissing us as unrelated to its greater project.

Walking on, we count 110 sanderlings scuttering about in the surf—just to spite the person who reported a weirdly specific 109 the day before.

“I am really cold now,” I say.

“What?” Tracey says.

Snowy owl on beach
A snowy owl on the beach in January 2014.
Photo by Roman T. Brewka.

Back in the neighborhoods, there are prayers written on cardboard stars nailed to telephone poles. It is another half-mile walk to a coffee shop, which seems to be the only place to eat here and is packed (the one other nearby restaurant “had its insides sucked out” by Sandy, our Samaritan had told us). We peel off layers as a waitress does a quick drive-by to size us up.

“You’ve been to see the snow angels?” she guesses. At first I think she is asking if we have been rolling around in snow, but there is no snow on this day, and it dawns that she is talking about owls.

Tracey understands immediately and pulls out her camera, clicking through for a shot of the owl to show her. The waitress looks pleased, if not surprised, and calls over a woman from a nearby table. “Look at this!”

A small group gathers around Tracey to admire it, the angel. And now it is good to have the photos, something to show.

One of the women, who is not a birder, relates a detailed story of her own encounter with a snowy owl two years ago.

Then she glances again at the photo, “Oh, but I think you got too close.”



Catherine Quayle is a writer from Brooklyn, New York.

Header photo, snowy owl at Breezy Point, by Roman T. Brewka. A note about Roman Brewka’s snowy owl photos: These photos have all been cropped and were taken a far distance from the owls, photographed in an ethical manner.

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