Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A taste of the Arctic

On February 2nd my husband and I traveled to Long Island to celebrate my sisters' birthdays (yes, they are twins and their birthday is 2/2 - kind of awesome). At about this time last year I made my own trek to Jones Beach, located in Wantagh, NY - not far from my hometown - to see if I could find a snowy owl.
Last year I took two trips out there and managed to see the owl twice. The first time took me close to two hours of walking the entire west end of Jones Beach (by the way, it was REALLY cold) till I found him. After that, I felt like a seasoned pro and found him right after getting onto the beach. So, when discussing going out east on Long Island for a birthday celebration, I asked my husband if he'd like to go find the owl, and he said, "Sure!"
We started our trip to the beach at the coast guard station to see if we could spot some seals. We walked out and saw a few harbor seals, resting very far out on the water. Binoculars made them visible, but we don't have a giant professional lens to capture them.
We saw harbor seals like these guys, but they were super far. These are some playful harbor seals from my trip to the beach last year.

We also saw some cool winter waterfowl including: Northern shovelers (a duck with what looks like an oversized bill), scaups (a diving duck), buffleheads (a small diving sea duck), long-tailed ducks (a diving sea duck), red-breasted mergansers (you guessed it, a diving duck - but with a thin serrated bill), a red-throated loon (a diving bird with a pointy bill), many brants (a type of goose), and - even though it was dead, I have never seen one before, a dovekie (a small sea bird, part of the auk and puffin family - they are black and white in the same way that a penguin is).
After that we headed to the west end beach, where people usually report seeing the snowy owl, and where I saw him twice last year.
-- Now, you're probably wondering what the heck a snowy owl, a native of the Arctic Circle, is doing in New York. Well, many species of bird migrate, birds migrate for all sorts of reasons, breeding, weather, food, etc. Well, snowy owls migrate south in the winter mainly because of food. Their food in the Arctic is either tucked away under the layers of ice and snow or has migrated down to our neck of the woods. The dunes at Jones beach provide a wonderful habitat for them. In the winter it is quiet, food is plentiful (remember all those birds I just named?), and the landscape is kind of like the Arctic, it's pretty barren, the only plant life is short grasses on the dunes, and some thicker areas of tall reeds.
Anyway, I was worried about the effects of super-storm "Sandy" on the beach. I was wondering what the dunes would look like, how the grasses fared, and how that would affect our search for the owl. The landscape seemed a little different from last year, but the dunes were still there, which was good, because that is where the owl tends to hang out. We walked and saw a guy with binoculars who said he was told he missed the owl by 40 minutes and had no luck of his own. It seemed discouraging, but we decided to keep walking and see what happens. We looked around and my husband was able to spot him soon after our encounter with the guy on the beach. So we walked over and he was hanging out on a short little dune. We sat with him for about what I thought was a half hour and the shots below are what we saw. Enjoy!
Here he is! This is a male snowy owl - older males are white, like this- females and immature snowy owls have dark spots or bars. Females, like most raptors (birds of prey) are larger.

The scoop on poop! Well, raptors are notable for their ability to poop in a projectile manner - as babies in the nest, you don't want a dirty home, so baby raptors in the nest back up to the edge to project their poop out and away, making for a clean nest. The adults continue to poop this way and it keeps where they are (branch, nest, or sand dune) tidy. Kind of excited that I could capture this! (Poop is actually very fascinating!)

You can get a small glimpse of those yellow eyes!

Check out that gape! Raptors have hooked beaks for tearing their prey into sizes that they can manage to fit into their mouth. An owl like this would have to tear up larger prey, like waterfowl, but if it were a small rodent, that could easily be swallowed whole. And, I think animals yawning are really cute.