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Black Friday, White Owl

December 5, 2013

I realize, like any good American, that I’m supposed to spend the day after Thanksgiving at the local electronics superstore, standing in a line at 4 AM waiting for that great deal on a pair of iPhone earbuds or a camera memory card. But when the alarm went off at 3:45 AM the Friday after Thanksgiving I wasn’t hopping in the car to head to Circuit City (assuming those exist anymore), I was heading east. Way east. To experience the southern tip of the 2013 Snowy Owl-splosion.

It’s about 5 1/2 hours from Greensboro to Hatteras Island, a long twitch by any stretch of the imagination. But I was able to break up the monotonous drive by picking up a few companions along the way. In Chapel Hill I nabbed Mark Kosiewski and NC Big Year aspirant Ali Iyoob. An hour later in Rocky Mount it was Josh Sims and David Howell who jumped in the increasingly packed Prius to continue the journey. I realize road stories are fertile ground for a narrative, but the trip was pretty uneventful. We talked about eBird, about county listing, and other birds and other birders – the sorts of things birders always discuss on a twitch these days.

When we arrived at Hatteras Island, we rolled into the campground and walked over the dunes, barely even giving a cursory look to the generally productive Salt Pond to our left. We were men on a mission. And when we got to the spot, some other friends were already there. As rewarding as it is to find a rare bird on your own, there’s something refreshingly simple to walking up on a line of scopes all trained on the same white spot on the beach. Birds are rarely so easy, or so worth a 10+ hour round trip.

Snowy Owl - Cape Point, Dare Co, NC

Snowy Owl – Cape Point, Dare Co, NC

This is hardly the first Snowy Owl ever seen in North Carolina. There are a surprising number of records from the 50s and 60s, but the last one to grace our fair state was in 2001. With things getting generally warmer, it was considered to be a serious blocker. But with the recent Snowy irruptions in the west and midwest in the last years it has been on the radar for Carolina birders too. Cape Point is a good a place as any for one to occur, as they seem to prefer beaches this far south. It has been suggested that this is because beaches are the most tundra-esque landscape available to them down here, but I’m convinced it’s because this is the first point of land they came across when flying in off the ocean. With hundreds of Snowy Owls piling up on the coast of Newfoundland these days, it’s a practical certainty that a few of them head out over the sea. Once out there it’s not much more of a turn to the right before you hit NC, and at that point Hatteras, with its tasty rats, gulls, and rabbits, must look pretty inviting. These birds do well over the ocean, as one in Bermuda this week suggests.

Our increasingly large group of owl spotters enjoyed the view from about 200 meters away. The owl knew we were there, turning its head towards us periodically. We crept a bit closer behind the dunes until she got a little nervous and we backed off. All in all, it was a pretty great experience.

Owl watchers

Owl watchers

Because Cape Point is such an inaccessible beach we took the opportunity to explore a bit. The gull flock was present near the point itself, and close scrutiny failed to turn up anything but the regular four species and a lingering Royal Tern. Snow Buntings that had been reported in the area went unfound by us leaving our attempt to see all the “snow” birds in the area stillborn.

Oh well, it’s hard to complain about any day you see a Snowy Owl.

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