Note: If anyone is fortunate enough to see a Snowy Owl, be sure to keep a safe distance so that it is not disturbed.
By Peter Vankevich
A bit of snow landed on Ocracoke Tuesday (Jan. 25), but it was the feathered variety, as a Snowy Owl made an appearance, the second one in as many years.
OBX Today reported on Jan. 19 that a Snowy Owl was seen along Beach Road at Mile Post 4 in Kitty Hawk and photographed by Connie Marcy.
The owl was on the move. A few hours later, Beth Fleishaker of Kill Devil Hills walked out to nearby Avalon Pier in search of birds to photograph.
“The pier was empty,” she said, “but way at the end I could see some birds flying around. As I approached them slowly, I saw something that caught my eye…with my zoom lens I was pleasantly surprised — it was a Snowy Owl!”
When a couple unaware of the owl’s presence sauntered along the pier, it flew off.
The owl headed to Hatteras Island where Brian Patteson got a call and photographed it at Cape Hatteras and later on the beach, a little bit east of Ramp 48 near the village of Frisco.
On Monday, it was sighted in Hatteras village, a possible sign it would move on to Ocracoke. It did.
Tuesday was an unusual day.
Ocracoke’s expansive South Point in January is normally quiet. Usually there are a few hardy anglers hoping to catch a red drum. A few others may be in search of shells, looking for some of the island’s wintering birds or engaging in nature photography.
The Point is not easy to get to. It’s a three-mile trek from the beginning of the sandy South Point Road. Only four-wheel drive vehicles with beach permits can make it and sometimes the overwash impact on the sand, especially after major storms, can make access difficult and even temporarily impassable.
The solitude temporarily changed mid-day on Jan. 25 when the National Park Service issued a news release with photos of a 55-foot yacht, the “Vivens Aqua” that had grounded during the night. Many ventured out to look and it became a newsworthy story. NPS park ranger Byron Atkinson was present monitoring all the hubbub.
In a convergence of attractions, along with the yacht, the Snowy Owl was seen for the first time on the island this year in the nearby salt flat area. Word went out on social media. Karen Rhodes, an island artist and bird photographer, saw the message and headed out.
“It was in the restricted zone and a ways out, so it was hard to get a good photo with my 600 mm lens,” she said.
The next day brought high winds and colder temperatures, and the few that braved the weather did not see the owl, nor has it been seen on Ocracoke since Tuesday after several searches, including Sunday morning.
It is possible that the owl is still on Ocracoke, but it’s likely that it crossed Ocracoke Inlet and is somewhere in Cape Lookout National Seashore. This flight movement of a Snowy Owl occurred last January after it was seen on Ocracoke for a week or so, then later discovered in an isolated area of South Core Banks.
Snowy Owls nest and spend much of their time in the Arctic and normally winter in southern Canada and upper portions of the United States. Sometimes large numbers of them venture farther south in what it known as an irruption year. Reasons and theories for this unusual migration vary from not enough prey to too much; especially an abundance of one of their favorite foods, lemmings.
When there is plenty of prey, the owls do not have to travel so far, permitting them to lay more eggs and successfully raise more fledglings. As the young owls grow, they are pushed out of the adults’ territories, which with this theory, accounts for why so many of the Snowy Owls that make it this far south are young birds.
When Snowy Owls appear out of their wintering range, they tend to stay in an area for brief periods and move on.
So, it was a phenomenon when one was seen on Dec. 26, 2013. This one was later joined by another, and both stayed until March 8, 2014. That must be a record for the longest sustained period of a Snowy Owl in North Carolina history.
Why did these two owls stay so long on Ocracoke? The winter of 2013-2014 was a cold, snowy winter and the South Point, with adequate prey, resembled the tundra, home court of the Snowy Owl.
When a rare bird appears, word can spread quickly and there is increasing concern that those wanting to photograph will get too close causing it unneeded stress and making it flee the area.
Patteson, owner of the business Seabirding that runs pelagic birding trips on the Stormy Petrel II out of Hatteras, is one of many who have voiced these concerns.
“People need to understand that close enough for a good cell phone pic is WAY too close even from a vehicle,” he wrote recently.
Snowy Owls are a source of fascination to many. Not only are they aesthetically beautiful, but they also have a tendency to show up, albeit briefly, in populated areas. New York City and Washington, D.C., were two locations this winter. In D.C., it perched for several days on Union Station at the foot of Capitol Hill, the same location where Jimmy Stewart had one of his most memorable movie lines, “Look, the Capitol Dome.” Imaginative wags may quip that the owl was starring in a remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” arriving to save the endangered Endangered Species Act.
Ocracoke bird notes
With far less fanfare, another rare white bird showed up on Ocracoke this week, a Ross’s Goose.
Like the Snowy Owl, this is also an Arctic nester.
Much smaller than the similar appearing Snow Goose, which are seasonally easily seen in the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, the Ross’s Goose lacks the black line in the bill, prominent in a Snow Goose.
Most Ross’s Geese winter and migrate west of the Mississippi River and only a few are seasonally reported on the Outer Banks.
Heather Johnson, who works at NCCAT, noticed it feeding in the grassy area, sometime with the resident Canada Geese near Silver Lake Harbor.
It continued to be seen there off and on throughout the week. Johnson and Claire Senseney got a bit of birding fame a few years ago when they found and photographed a rare Purple Gallinule near the NPS campground.
Also in this area Sunday morning (Jan. 30) were a flock of American Pipits. Ground feeders, a constant flicking of their tails can help distinguish them from Yellow-rumped Warblers and sparrows.
Another flock of pipits was seen Sunday at the NPS campground, that is until a Merlin scared them off.