Snow Break for the Birder

On Saturday I met up with my adviser, his wife and a friend from grad school and we headed back to Sandy Hook, home of the Snowy Owl spotted during our Big Day. I was excited to do my first real birding since my return from the Galapagos, but as departure time approached and I thought of all the snow out there, the thought of trudging through snow and cold caused me to drag my feet.  Granted I should have been thrilled that we caught a break between the storms and we were all free, but it wasn’t registering.

But it wasn’t so bad. There was no wind and the snow was manageable. You might notice there’s something off about the photo….

Trekking over the white sand beach. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Trekking over the white sand beach. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

No footprints!  For the most part we were able to walk entirely on top of the snow without leaving footprints.  It felt very magical and many a remark was made about elves.   But also no owl.  I didn’t do any of the planning or scouting for this trip, so it went overlooked that the last time a snowy owl had been spotted was on January 20th.

Surprising flock of Field Sparrows.  Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Surprising flock of Field Sparrows. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Like last time we also had nice views Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers. New were Bald Eagle, Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, American Robin, Common Goldeneye, Black Scoters and Field Sparrows. I got a glimpse of a Merlin while everyone else was mesmerized by a flashy immature Bald Eagle. So slow start to NJ birds, but getting good birds.

Horned Grebe finds a calm patch of water.   Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Horned Grebe finds a calm patch of water. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Working Sandy Hook is slowly improving my identification skills of a few birds I only see about once per year. so yay! Just need to actually order my scope, so I can be a real birder.

Hermit Thrush. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Hermit Thrush. False harbinger of spring. Sandy Hook, NJ. Taken on February 8, 2014.

Call me crazy, but winter is rapidly winding up. While it cannot end too soon for many people (another several inches of snow predicted for this week?! whee!), to me I see the closing window of opportunity for Snowy Owls and Long-eared Owls.

One in A Hundred

When one intends to embark on a Big Day, one brings along their own cinematographer, no?  If you haven’t tried this I highly recommend it.  Mind you, it wasn’t my intent.  That would have been very pretentious.

I was embarking on New Year’s Big Day 2014 with a friend from grad school.  When I arrived at her house to pick her up, she asked if I would mind if a friend of hers tagged along who studies cinematography and was interested in filming the day.   So three of us embarked for Sandy Hook.   Between the late start and  one of the party needing to catch a flight, we had a very small window.

Upon arrival, we headed out to the tip, to North Beach, which we frequently don’t get to bird much there is usually little time left by the time we arrive.  But ebird suggested that was the place to be with reports of good winter birds.

Our official first bird of the year was the Long-tailed Duck.  We crested the dune and right in front of us, close to shore swam a fine looking male.

Long-tailed Duck swims close to shore.

Long-tailed Duck swims close to shore.

It was quickly followed by a Northern Gannet, the three gulls (Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed).   Watching the Long-tailed Duck swim south, we scanned and quickly came across a Red-throated Loon.

What a start to the year!

Red-necked Loon swims closer to shore.

Red-necked Loon swims closer to shore.

I was lying on the sand, working on capturing the loon and the duck, when a sanderling flew past twice, then landed and ran past.

Sandering zips past, never noticing the human and camera horizontal on the sand.

Sanderling zips past, never noticing the human and camera horizontal on the sand.

As we moseyed down the beach, we realized we were being trailed by at least 100 people.  A very bizarre moment.  Like a tour bus spilling its occupants out at Times Square.  Then it happened.

We were walking north and I spotted a white spec in the brush on the horizon.  Could it possibly be?  So snug and smug!  Not a sentient plastic bag, but a Snowy Owl!

IMG_5987 IMG_5992 IMG_5995I managed these three images from a safe distance.  As we stood there watching, other people quickly became aware of our find.   Unfortunately not everyone was as cautious as we were, and the owl spooked.  Our remaining looks weren’t nearly as good, but we saw a Snowy Owl!

We didn’t have much time remaining, so we made our way to the bayside where we picked up a flock of 20 House Finches and a number of ducks including Horned Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, and a Red-breasted Merganser in flight.

Horned Grebe is a pleasant surprise.

Horned Grebe is a pleasant surprise.

So that was the first day of 2014 down. Not too many birds, but enough to whet our appetites.  However our cinematographer found birding suitably intriguing, spent the drive back reading the field guide, and is hoping to return in the spring for round two.

I probably won’t get a chance to bird again until late January, at least not here!