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Sunday, December 12, 2004

Dawn at the Beach

Sean told me that I was probably the only person he knew that was crazy enough to join him at the beach in the winter before sunrise. I'm not sure but I think that was a compliment. So at 5:15am I met him in front of my building and we headed off east to Jones Beach.

For a photographer, I think that the importance of early morning light is in its low angle, the clearness of the air and the quality of the colors. I enjoy dawn at the ocean (or anywhere in nature, for that matter) not just to experience the momentary solitude, but also to absorb the gradual crescendo of sights, sounds and smells as the day unfolds.


(Photo credit - Rob J)

We got to the beach much faster than expected. A few fishermen were the only other people in the parking lot. As we set up the scope and camera it was clear that we were both underdressed. The strong, gusting wind was much colder than we had expected. The stars were hidden under a thick cloud blanket. Behind us was the pink glowing dome of the city that never sleeps. In front of us were two or three points of white light bobbing on distant swells. As an orange and pink sliver began to open on the horizon we hefted our tripods over our shoulders and started the five minute walk towards the shoreline.

Sandpipers must have been roosting in the grass at the edge of the path. As we approached one began to stir and started calling. A second, then a third were roused by our presence and warned the rest of the flock. Suddenly Sean noticed a large, slow flapping ghost to our left. We could barely make out its shape but knew that the large bird was a Snowy Owl. Perhaps it was the owl that woke the sandpipers and not us. I followed it in my binoculars as it flew east then dropped out of sight.

As we stood on the beach the blackness of night had begun to retreat and everything appeared in shades of gray. A few gulls skimmed the rough surf close to shore. I scanned the beach and spotted what looked like an owl perched on a mound of sand several hundred yards down the beach. As we walked the edge of the foamy surf flocks of Sanderlings began to arrive at the shore to feed. Four Red-throated loons flew west just inches above the waves. We tried to be discreet by walking below the gentle rise of the sandy berm. The owl spotted us, though, and flew to a low, grassy rise that fringed the dunes.

Sean begins his crawl

(Photo credit - Rob J)

I watched the Snowy Owl in the scope from a safe distance. Sean mounted his camera on a wooden "sled" and started a sloth-like, methodical crawl towards the dunes. The clouds weren't clearing fast enough and the early morning hours remained cold, windy and gray.

Owl "lighthouse"

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Like a lighthouse on the edge of the dunes the bright, white owl seemed to be guiding birds in for a safe landing on the sand. A flock of twittering Snow Buntings flew overhead. Could they have been some neighbors from the arctic? As Sean slowly made his way towards the owl I watched in the scope as the bird preened his young, spotted plumes. He seemed to be aware of Sean's approach and periodically craned his neck up and down like a jack-in-the-box. He ignored Sean and went back to preening. It seemed like fifteen minutes had passed and Sean hadn't made much progress. Suddenly the owl began bobbing his head up and down again, spread his massive white wings and flew deeper into the dunes. Sean looked a little disappointed but we decided that it would be much healthier for the owl if we left him alone. He is probably disrupted much more often while hunting in urban areas than in his normal northern habitats.

Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

-click to learn more about Snowy Owls-

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Jones Beach, 12/12/2004
Red-throated Loon
Great Egret
American Wigeon
Long-tailed Duck
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Peregrine Falcon
American Oystercatcher (heard only)
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Snowy Owl
Northern Flicker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-throated Sparrow
Snow Bunting
Eastern Meadowlark
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird


Grumpy Old Man said...

Very fine picture.

aleah said...

Wow, how exciting!! I have never seen a snowy in the wild (yet) but have only witnessed one in the back of some idiot's trailer (exotic animal collecter). This is something! I wasn't aware they traveled that far south?

Rob J. said...

Jane - Not sure what part of Canada you're in but you might have a better chance of encountering a Snowy Owl there than we usually do in NYC. Also, if an exotic animal collector was found with a Snowy Owl in the states he'd probably have a lot of explaining to do. Thanks for writing.

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