Rare Snowy Owl in Florida

January 1, 2014 at 6:39 am (Birds- Florida, fine art photography, Nature, Photography, Wildlife) (, , , , , , )

Snowy Owl, immature female, on a northern Florida beach

Snowy Owl, immature female, on a northern Florida beach

When a snowy owl comes to Florida, it’s a “calling all birders” moment.  It is extremely rare for a bird of the snowy tundra and the northern U.S. to venture this far south.  There is an “irruption” of snowys this winter – meaning an extraordinarily large number of these birds are showing up in areas they aren’t normally seen.  Why is this happening?  Perhaps there is a shortage in their food supply – lemmings and rodents mainly – in their preferred habitat.  So they venture south to find better opportunities.

Snowy owl in flight

Snowy owl in flight

This immature female landed on a beach in Little Talbot Island State Park in northeast Florida near Jacksonville.  I found out about her from a visitor where I work at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge 60 miles away in southern Georgia.  Oddly, nothing showed up on the Georgia Bird List, even though the bird is very close to the border.  I spent all day in the area with other birders and bird photographers, making sure we didn’t get too close to scare her.  So these photos are highly cropped.

Taking off

Taking off

Mature males are almost completely white, and immature males have light barring on their feathers.  Females – especially immatures – are heavily barred on their entire bodies.  Females need to blend in with the ground where they lay their eggs in a scoop they make, so they need the camouflage.

Immature female snowy owl

Immature female snowy owl

This girl tended to keep her back to the beach where most of us gathered, but her head moved frequently to keep tabs on us and any prey she might want to tackle.  Snowys tend to sit for looong periods, and she was no different.  Die-hard birders and dedicated photographers know they will spend hours waiting for something interesting to happen.  Everybody was very respectful of each other and of the bird.  Occasionally a state park ranger would come to check on the situation as well.

Snowy Owl immature female

Snowy Owl immature female

She kept her eyes closed or mostly closed most of the time, so it was rare to get a glimpse of those yellow orbs.  I had seen an immature male snowy owl on Tybee Island, Georgia last year, and it was the same behavior.  Those large eyes can magnify dim light with ease to aid night hunting, so I’m guessing she was using her eyelids as sunglasses.

Snowy Owl by Cindy McIntyre (11)

The Georgia owl stayed in the same general area for about two months – flying from St. Simons, St. Catherines, and Tybee Islands during that time.  So it is hoped this girl will stay for awhile to delight birders – many of whom have never seen a snowy owl in the wild.

Snowy Owl by Cindy McIntyre (10)

It helps to check the Florida bird list (although I rarely do because many of the posts come out in long strings of garble.)  I googled the owl after I heard about the sighting and found some very recent posts, so if you go try to get the latest info.  She hadn’t been seen for a couple of days so she may have moved to another area before returning to the park’s south beach.

Viewed from the service road - a "roro" (roll on, roll off) ship passes by in the background.

Viewed from the service road – a “roro” (roll on, roll off) ship passes by in the background.

The above photo shows the view from the dunes on a service road you can walk down from the parking lot.  Arrow points to the bird.

Immature female Snowy Owl in flight

Immature female Snowy Owl in flight

Many birders bring spotting scopes and will gladly let others view the owl.  It’s a great opportunity to tell non-birders about this owl and why it’s so rare to see her here.  We swap bird and photo stories, too.  I met another photographer from Jacksonville who used to do art shows like I did, and we chatted merrily while snapping away.

Snowy Owl by Cindy McIntyre (18)

I left for a few hours to find the also-rare snow buntings at the Huguenot Memorial Park (city of Jacksonville) just north, but struck out there.  Stay tuned for another post on osprey, however!  Then I returned for the afternoon.  I’m not kidding, but I took about 1000 pictures.  She was so far away it was hard to see if her eyes were open, so like many digital photographers, I felt it’s better to be safe than to miss a unique image. For only a few seconds, she actually turned all the way around, giving me a great view from the front – with eyes open!  Around 4:30 p.m. she decided she had enough of sitting, stretched those huge wings, and took off.  There were many very very very happy photographers when she did that!

Snowy Owl by Cindy McIntyre (19)

She flew to a sand bar, and for me, the photo session was over.  What a fantastic way to end 2013!  (By the way, both of those parks are very lovely, with nice beaches!  Huguenot also has camping.)

Photos and text copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre

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Website:  CindyMcIntyre.com

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17 Comments

  1. juliecrombe said,

    What a beautiful animal! Great shots!

  2. thomasgable said,

    Cindy these are stunning pictures! Absolutely amazing! The second photograph is absolutely mind blowing! Seriously amazing shots! Thanks much for sharing!

  3. Sue Herring said,

    Cindy – thank you so much for sharing these amazingly beautiful photos with us. We have not been able to get up to the area ourselves & this is the next best thing for us.

  4. Bill Everitt said,

    Breathtaking photos! Your narrative is excellent also. Thank you for both.

  5. Annette Bittaker said,

    Awesome photos, Cindy. What a platform for your talent

  6. Jean said,

    Thanks for sharing Cindy. I am driving up from Ft. Lauderdale. Could you share any specifics on where to park…Will I see the Birders from the road. Any specifics would be appreciated. Thanks. Jean ljt1661@gmail.com, or 954-632-5822.

  7. Tammy Hassenpflug said,

    Thanks for such beautiful images, makes me want to become a bird photographer.

  8. Kellie S. said,

    Hello there, what a fantastic record for Florida, and you’ve captured some great images here. Thanks for sharing them on your blog.

    I am from Ontario but have actually visited Little Talbot State Park, as I have a family friend living in close-by Jacksonville. Even though they are abundant in my area this year, it gives me more incentive to visit again soon!

    Some of the info on your blog posting about ageing/sexing and about the reason for this irruption aren’t quite accurate, so I thought I’d refer you to a couple links for further reading.

    Info on irruptions and this one in particular: http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/what-is-an-irruption/

    Info on irruptions, banding, ageing/sexing, and more: https://www.facebook.com/HolidayBeachMO/posts/1446700565543092

    Hope you find this informative.

    Good birding,
    Kellie

  9. Emily said,

    I just came from Little Talbot to see this beautiful girl! May I purchase one of your photos? I didn’t get any nearly as good :)

  10. andy said,

    yeah somethings up this year!! where i fish.. i is a small saltwater creek i have been catching deep sea fish there,, and never have before..i have fished there for 26 years.. so i know whats there but this year i was catching all kinda deep water fish so i called ga dept of wildlife and was asking whats going on.. since this is unheard of and they told me it was crazy..they have been finding all kind of fish that are never there..in shallow water…they have been trying to figure it out for months now and have even been having to go to seminars and workshops and bringing in scientist to try and figure it out

  11. Marilyn Clevenger said,

    Great shots. Love the ones that Graham McGeorge did too. His are super awesome. Going to buy some for sure!

  12. Bruce Stambaugh said,

    Cindy, Do you know if the Snowy Owl is still at Little Talbot Island? If so, where exactly? I’m visiting Amelia Island from OH.

    Great pics by the way.

    Thanks,

    Bruce

    • Cindy McIntyre said,

      Hi Bruce – I’ve been checking the bird forum but nothing has been reported in weeks. You might call the ranger station at the park to see if anyone has reported it there. I hoped to get one more view myself.

      • Bruce Stambaugh said,

        Thanks for your quick reply, Cindy. We’ve had several in NE OH, where I’m from, and was fortunate to get some pics of two. The pics aren’t nearly as nice as yours are, however. Good birding. Bruce

  13. Johnd719 said,

    I am not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic information I was looking for this info for my mission. kddbdaaddack

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