“The Rock” (?) Returns to Rye

In order to see the birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.  Robert Lynd

After a brief respite from winter with photographer/co-editor of DEAD IN GOOD COMPANY Kim Nagy’s adventure at the Chan Chich Lodge in Belize, we are back in reality.  Winter in New England.  After the great Snowy Owl irruption of 2013-14, every year since one of our first questions as fall ends and winter begins is , “Will there be Snowy Owls this season?”  This year Snowies were being seen early in many areas in the northern US.  Birding experts were theorizing that this was going to be another irruption year.  Perhaps as big – or even bigger – than 2013-14.  Music to our owl kooks’ ears!

Thus far we haven’t seen those large numbers around here – yet.  We’ve had a few Snowy encounters at Plum Island (on one day five Snowies were reportedly seen at Plum, though mostly far away in the marshes).  I had a nice encounter with a Snowy as it perched on a dune along the beach at parking lot #7 on November 26th. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97AjHD-Wezw   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8UGwCfkjv8  

70SNOWYOWLPLUMXXXXSUNNPV2620171739 0199Snowy Owl, Plum Island, Nov. 26, 2017.  Photo by John Harrison

70SNOWYOWLPLUMXXXXSUNNOV2620171739 0209Snowy Owl, Plum Island, Nov. 26, 2017.  Photo by John Harrison.

I didn’t have another close encounter until January 9th at the Plum Island maintenance shed, where it was perched pretty close on a wooden stake in the ground in the marsh.  It stayed there for a few minutes until it took off and landed on a pine at the back of the maintenance shed area, where it stayed for nearly a half hour. 01SNOWYOWLPLUMXXXXTUESJAN0920181741 2946Snowy Owl, Plum Island, Jan. 09, 2018.  Photo by John Harrison.

01SNOWYOWLPLUMXXXXTUESJAN0920181741 3030Snowy Owl, Plum Island, Jan. 09, 2018.  Photo by John Harrison.

01SNOWYOWLPLUMXXXXTUESJAN0920181741 2950Snowy Owl, Plum Island.  Photo by John Harrison.

Those beautiful eyes were open as it looked around curiously from the top of that pine.  Finally it took off and landed on a block of ice far away.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odfv3bvAy6E   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSRuT8YkOrM  

  In 2013-14 the best Snowy Owl activity was at Salisbury Beach State Reservation.  We visited that site at least two or three times a week.  If we didn’t see at least four Snowies at Salisbury, up close and personal, it was a bad day.  So far there have only been a couple of Snowy sightings at Salisbury, so if this is going to be a big irruption year, it’s late starting.  But all has not been lost at Salisbury Beach.  We had a couple of interesting encounters with Horned Larks and a very cooperative Merlin one morning.71HORNEDLARKSALISBURYXXXXSUNDEC3120171740 2326Horned Lark, Salisbury.  Photo by John Harrison


Merlin, Salisbury.  Photo by John Harrison.
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Merlin, Salisbury.  Photo by John Harrison.
  One of the Snowy Owl staples for us since 2014 has been ‘Rocky’ at Rye Beach, NH.  Kim Nagy and I were at Hampton Beach hoping to see a Snowy in 2014 and a woman told Kim she had just left Rye Beach and there was a Snowy perched on the rocks there.  We immediately headed to that location, fifteen minutes away, and as we drove into the parking lot we could see a crowd of cameras aimed at the rocks with the ocean roiling behind.  We quickly made our way to the gathered photogs and there on the black rocks was this gleaming white magnificent owl.  We watched it for a long time, mesmerized.  The tide was coming in and as the waves got closer, slapping the rocks and splashing water closer and closer to the owl, we knew it would soon take off.  And it did, and the audience of photographers were ready for it.  It was a fantastic opportunity.  The owl flew to another part of the beach and landed next to a piece of driftwood, another great photo op.  Kim named that Snowy Rocky.  Every year since then that owl has returned to Rye Beach.  We feel it’s the same owl since it always spends a great deal of time on the rocks and that driftwood and exhibits the same behavior patterns every year.   On the other hand, it’s usually the young owls that come down during an irruption and the Rocky of 2013-14 would be five years older now.  It is perhaps unlikely that it’s the same owl.  But for us, it’s the spirit of Rocky.  Kim and I had a wonderful reunion with our pal Rocky on Sunday afternoon, January 14th.  The fifth year in a row.
from KIM Rocky puffed up
Snowy Owl Rocky, Rye Beach.  Photo by Kim Nagy. 
  Looks like Rocky likes to vacation at Rye Beach, NH!  So though this hasn’t so far been anything like the irruption of 2013-14, we are hopeful that it yet might be.  And even if it isn’t, we’ve had another visit by Rocky (or maybe Rocky’s grandson or granddaughter), and that counts for a lot.     
  In addition to being reunited with Rocky that day, we also had a great encounter with a small flock of Snow Buntings.  Kim spotted them on the roof of the shack in the parking lot and they soon flew down to the ground on the snow.  While searching for Rocky, we also watched a flock of Purple Sandpipers on the rocks.
from KIM Snow Bunting on roof looking left
Snow Bunting, Rye Beach.  Photo by Kim Nagy.
from KIM Snow Bunting walking down roof
Snow Bunting, Rye Beach.  Photo by Kim Nagy.
Purple Sandpipers, Rye Beach.  Photo by Kim Nagy.
from KIM purple sandpiper wings up on rock
Purple Sandpipers, Rye Beach.  Photo by Kim Nagy.
Purple Sandpiper, Rye Beach.  Photo by John Harrison.
They gave us plenty of opportunity to photograph and take videos of them.  Snow Buntings are a striking species and those colors with the white snow as background was perfect.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_z2MboBmPjg  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWzxiwS54-8 
  We left Rocky and the Snow Buntings and went to nearby Rye Marina, where in the past couple of years we have had good luck with Loons diving for crabs.  As we drove toward the pier we spotted a couple of Loons and knew it was going to be a great encounter.  We were able to photograph them diving for an hour.
from KIM Loon eating crab
Loon with crab, Rye Marina.  Photo by Kim Nagy.  
On one dive instead of coming up with a crab, the Loon seemed to have a writhing eel in its beak.  They had quite a battle.  The eel wrapped itself around the Loon’s beak and they wrestled for a while.
Loon with eel, Rye Marina.  Photo by John Harrison.
The Loon would dive under every minute or so and come back up with the eel.  Finally the Loon came up after a dive and the eel was gone.  It seems like the eel won that battle and the Loon let it go.  That was probably the better part of valor.  The eel was just too much for the Loon.  It’s better off staying with the crabs.  Nevertheless, it was exciting to watch that struggle.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxUa-LoA-O4  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZX20fVNdBgc
  There have been a couple of surprises this season at Dunback Meadow in Lexington.  A bunch (yes, bunch) of Long-eared Owls have been hanging around in the pines near the ball field for a couple of months now.  On Sunday morning, January 21st, four Long-ears were huddled at the top of a pine and a lone Long-ear was in a nearby tree.
Long-eared Owl, Dunback Meadow.  Photo by John Harrison.
Five of this species in one area is quite amazing.  This has been a life-bird for many of us.  Of course the other side of the coin is that they perch at the top of the tree behind branches and foliage.  It’s always difficult to photograph them and even when we’re able to catch a moment with the open eyes, it’s obstructed.
Long-eared Owl eyes open, Dunback Meadow.  Photo by John Harrison.
Long-eared Owl, eyes open, Dunback Meadow.  Photo by John Harrison.
Long-eared Owl, Dunback Meadow.  Photo by Jim Renault.
Unlike Great-horned Owls which we have photographed often at Mount Auburn Cemetery on open branches with no obstructions, Long-ears are very private and just don’t give us moments like that.  Too bad.  Owls are always compelling and it’s frustrating to have so many of them there and we’re unable to get good photographs.
  The other Dunback Meadow surprise, a pair of Rough-legged Hawks, is the other side of the coin.  This pair flies around the meadows past the four-corners and gave us multiple opportunities to catch them.  Photographer Jim Renault has had several especially great encounters with this pair.
Rough-legged Hawk, Dunback Meadow.  Photo by Jim Renault.
Rough-legged Hawk, Dunback Meadow.  Photo by Jim Renault.  
Rough-legged Hawk pair, Dunback Meadow.  Photo by John Harrison.
On Wednesday, Jan. 24, I had several encounters with a pair of Rough-legged Hawks at Plum Island.  At times the hawk hovered over me looking right into my eyes.  Quite thrilling.
Rough-legged Hawk, Plum Island.  Photo by John Harrison.
Rough-legged Hawk, Plum Island.  Photo by John Harrison.
Another thrilling encounter was at Plum Island where, after years and years of frustration trying to capture some good moments with Harrier Hawks, a pair of them performed for me for more than an hour, flying together and landing and hovering near parking lot #1.  Patience pays off, sooner or later.
69HARRIERHAWKPLUMXXXXTHURSNOV0920171738 8770 - Copy - Copy - Copy
Harrier Hawk, Plum Island.  Photo by John Harrison. 
Harrier Hawk, Plum Island.  Photo by John Harrison.
I was on my way to Plum Island one morning and saw a couple of photographers along the road in front of the airfield with cameras aimed across the street at the telephone wire.  I pulled into the parking area and saw that they were photographing a striking Cooper’s Hawk.
 70COOPERSHAWKPLUMISLANDXXXXTUESNOV2120171739 9596 - Copy - Copy - Copy
Cooper’s Hawk, Plum Island.  Photo  by John Harrison.
Cooper’s Hawk, Plum Island.  Photo by John Harrison.
We had it for almost a half hour.  In that time it took off twice for prey (unsuccessfully) and then returned to the telephone wire.  A very serendipitous encounter. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGBS-Zqcr_I  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yWcChUAqCM  
  We ended the month, on January 27, actually, going to Rye Beach hoping to see Rocky.  Rocky wasn’t on hand but we had some nice moments with the Loons and other ducks, Scoters, Buffleheads and Barrows Goldeneye among them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNwbbivf4u4  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wupZbP_lAs  And in Salisbury we saw some Mergansers, both Common and Hooded.
from KIM barrows goldeneye
Barrows Goldeneye, Rye Marina.  Photo by Kim Nagy.
from KIM merganser take off 2
Common Merganser, Salisbury.  Photo by Kim Nagy.
from KIM hoodie male swimming left
Hooded Merganser, Salisbury.  Photo by Kim Nagy. 
On the way to Salisbury Beach Reservation Kim noticed several photographers with cameras aimed into the marsh.  We left the main road and went to the end of the next side street and sure enough the photographers were photographing a Snowy Owl.  It was mission accomplished.  We had our Snowy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qa-r1xvQC3M  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj3woRlO0Wo   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECt1R82jgyc
Snowy Owl, Salisbury.  Photo by John Harrison.
Snowy Owl, Salisbury.  Photo by John Harrison.
Snowy Owl, Salisbury.  Photo by John Harrison.
Snowy Owl groupies, Salisbury.  Photo by John Harrison.
We watched and photographed it for almost three hours, of course hoping it would take off for us.  The lighting was perfect and it would have been a great opportunity.  But that owl was just too comfortable.  So after that three hours we gave in and left.  We hate doing that, but it looked like that Snowy might sit there until sundown.  But we finished the month with our favorite species.  Thus far it’s been a good winter in our pursuit of wildlife!