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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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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