Monday, November 25, 2013

Sunbathing on the beach in November? In New Jersey?

Apparently the tundra-like atmosphere that makes our beaches appealing to only a hearty few New Jerseyans in November also makes them a favorable sunbathing spot for rare visitors from the north.

No, I'm not talking about the Benny, the much-maligned city dweller come to give the Jersey Shore a bad name. I'm referring to a much more refined creature, the snowy owl. Two were reported to be in various spots on Sandy Hook last week, and Ivan and I made our way there to check them out.

Owling -- as birding for owls is known -- is generally a distinctly different art than the search for, say, songbirds. It's got its own traditions and etiquette, and birders rarely report the exact location of one of these iconic raptors, for the owls' safety. Active largely at night, most owls obscure themselves during the day to avoid attack from predators. If they feel harassed by individuals or groups of people standing within a certain range of their roosting spot, they're likely to attempt to find another secluded perch to rest on, and in the process, reveal themselves to predators.

Snowy owls differ in that they tend to be 'out' during the day, often roosting on the ground or a low perch. The only other one I've seen was actually on some distant riprap at Round Valley Reservoir a few years ago. Thing is, if they've gotten as far south as New Jersey, there's a good chance they're exhausted from their long journey from the Arctic and deserve a good, solid rest without being hassled by a bunch of people. Thus, while general locations are often shared, birders generally know to give the owls a wide berth, observing from a hundred feet or more away.

The snowys at Sandy Hook had been reported from several locations along the ocean beach, from just north of the park's entrance gate, to the most currently accessible northern end of the hook at Fisherman's Trail. We figured we'd scope for birders from the hawk watch platform at Battery Peck and adjust plans from there.

Our view from the deck yielded some success, but not the kind we really wanted. A large group of birders was on the trail, but headed back toward the parking lot, having not seen either owl. We continued scanning for a few minutes from our elevated perch but saw no signs of the birds.

The next stop, on North Beach, was the spot, as we could tell from the many cars in the nearby lot. As we walked along the sandy path toward the beach, we started seeing small clutches of binocular-toting people in various areas, all facing in the same direction, some with spotting scopes, a few with cameras.

Snowy Owl, Sandy Hook, Hidden New Jersey
One of the Sandy Hook snowy owls, perhaps trying to
catch a little nap on the beach. A big thank you to
 Lisa Fanning, This Great Planet, for this digiscoped
and cropped photo
"Looks like the owl is here," Ivan said. More or less in the center of the rough circle was what, by bare eye, appeared to be a white and gray lump or small sand dune. Focusing through binoculars brought a clearer view of a relatively dark snowy owl, head turned away from us. Occasionally it would shift position slightly, or turn its head to face us before looking away once more. The other reported snowy was nowhere to be found.

By day's end, we heard that there were two other snowy owls spotted in New Jersey -- one near Barnegat Light and another in National Park, along the Delaware. Why are they here, and so many? Opinions vary. It's possible that there's a shortage of their normal prey of lemmings in their traditional wintering grounds in Canada. Or perhaps so many owlets were born this spring that adults are forcing the newcomers south to find winter territory. In either case, snowys are rare but not unheard of in New Jersey, so we can enjoy them, from a distance, for a brief period of time.

And apparently Sandy Hook's Canadian visitors are learning the pleasures of visiting our shores without the frustrations of having to purchase a parking pass or, farther south, a beach badge. They'll be long gone and home before anyone stops to check.

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